How Earlham Institute is tackling the global challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic

At EI we are applying our skills, expertise and resources to tackle many complex challenges resulting from the current pandemic, from ramping up COVID-19 testing capacity, developing systems approaches for tracking the disease, and enabling research with our computational infrastructure, tools and resources.

Latest actions and updates in response to COVID-19

Ramping up COVID-19 testing for key workers

Director of Operations Sarah Cossey and Head of Genomics Pipelines Dr Karim Gharbi have coordinated a volunteer drive across the Norwich Research Park (NRP) to help the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) increase capacity for COVID-19 testing of key workers.

Almost 200 staff from across NRP responded to the call within 48 hours and the first volunteers were deployed to NNUH within two weeks. Among the first volunteers to start working in the microbiology lab was postdoctoral scientist Dr Calum Raine, who has been processing swab samples from patients, staff and key workers to test for COVID-19 using the gold standard qPCR method. He will be joined next week by another member of EI staff, senior project manager Dr Adi Kliot.

This important collaboration between NNUH, Earlham Institute (EI), the John Innes Centre (JIC), The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL), Quadram Institute Bioscience (QIB), the University of East Anglia (UEA), Eastern Pathology Alliance and the Cotman Centre is providing local testing for key workers, who otherwise would have had to travel to national test centres in Ipswich, Stansted or Peterborough.

People on the Government’s list of key workers can find out more about registering for a test by visiting the NNUH pages on community testing.

Drive-through COVID-19 testing bays set up at Norwich Research Park to support the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH)

Norwich Research Park drive thru COVID-19 testing

Applying expertise in automation to scale up testing

EI scientists have played an essential role in applying their expertise in automation to scale up a new testing facility in the University of East Anglia Bob Champion Building, which is a stone’s throw from NNUH.

James Lipscombe and Dr Thomas Brabbs of the Genomics Pipelines Group worked hard throughout the Easter period to develop flexible, automated protocols for RNA extraction and qPCR setup for COVID-19 testing.

Laboratory manager Geoff Plumb has ensured that robots and other essential equipment could be successfully redeployed. The expertise and services normally offered to people through our BIO Foundry are being redirected towards COVID testing.

EI has applied expertise in automation to scale up testing turnaround time and capacity

EI has applied expertise in automation to scale up testing turnaround time and capacity

International COVID-19 Disease Map: adopting a systems approach to tackling COVID-19

Group leader at EI and QIB Dr Tamas Korcsmaros and his team are part of the international COVID-19 Disease Map collaboration that is working hard to understand the progression of a disease that is constantly surprising us.

SARS-Cov-2 virus causes severe illness in some patients, triggering what is known as a cytokine storm that sends the immune system into overdrive. Rather than being a disease of the respiratory tract, more and more evidence points to the deadly effects COVID-19 can have all over the body. Dr Korcsmaros and collaborators at Imperial College London and the University of Heidelberg are therefore applying their expertise in systems biology to help join the dots and paint a holistic picture of how COVID-19 affects the human body.

Part of this work will involve using existing bioinformatics tools that the Korcsmaros Group has developed and successfully applied to the study of Salmonella and irritable bowel disease (IBD), which rely on taking a systems-based, computational approach to understanding the networks at play in complex diseases. By using these existing tools on the disparate data sets gleaned from COVID-19 research, Dr Korcsmaros hopes to identify previously unknown connections that could point towards more successful options for treating the disease.

International disease mapping - Tamas Korcsmaros is involved in a project taking a systems biology approach to tackling COVID-19

Disease map - systems approach to tackling COVID-19

Computational tools and resources to study COVID-19

EI hosts a Galaxy Node and is the lead institute for Elixir-UK, both of which have offered services in support of research into COVID-19. Elixir, for example, has offered various computational resources, while Galaxy has provided open source analysis infrastructure and workflows in support of best practice computational research into COVID-19. Dr Nicola Soranzo of EI, who works on Galaxy, along with collaborator Björn Grüning of the University of Freiburg have added new tools to Galaxy that can be used for pan-genome analysis of SARS-CoV-2.

The National Capability in e-Infrastructure at EI also provides UK-based researchers with access to additional computational power whilst working from home. Users can request access to a virtual machine, offered through CyVerse UK, which can be set up to suit various computational requirements.

EI is also supporting UKRI's contribution to the international COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, providing supercomputing capacity to help speed up the discovery of new molecules that could lead to treatment and a vaccine.

EI is enabling open-access computational tools and resources for COVID-19 research through its Galaxy node and ELIXIR-UK node and co-ordination

Open-access computational tools and resources for COVID-19 research