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New Health Agency to receive expanded sequencing capacity for current and future pandemics

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is to receive expanded sequencing and surveillance capacities in order to bolster its ability to prepare, prevent and respond to threats to the nation’s health. In a remit letter which details the agency’s future priorities, the top task for UKHSA is to take forward the fight against COVID-19 and ensure that the country is prepared to react against other future external health threats.

These increased capacities exhibit the UKHSA’s commitment to utilising science and research to reach its important objectives. The organisation, under the leadership of Dr Jenny Harries, will “bring together world-leading public health science, cutting-edge capabilities in data analytics and genomic surveillance, and at-scale testing and contact tracing to respond appropriately to all potential health hazards”.

During the transition period (until end of September) UKHSA’s organisational design will be developed and the existing organisations – PHE and NHS Test and Trace – will support Dr Harries and the UKHSA leadership team. The remit letter from Lord Bethell to UKHSA CEO Dr Jenny Harries states the agency will focus on its priority to: “expand genome sequencing and analysis capacity and capability to establish a world-leading pathogen genomics system to detect and provide local, regional and national surveillance of infectious threats with strategies to provide this capability within the regional and national health and public health framework”.

Public Health England (PHE) has identified the first group of countries to receive COVID-19 genomic sequencing support as part of the New Variant Assessment Platform (NVAP). The NVAP was developed by PHE in April 2021 and will be advanced by the UKHSA. The first countries to be provided support through the NVAP include Brazil, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan. “The NVAP will provide valuable support to many international public health colleagues to strengthen their genomic sequencing capability, which in turn will make us all safer,” said Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UKHSA.

Regarding testing, UKHSA will be “providing agile testing services at scale with rapid and effective contact tracing services, working in partnership with local authorities”. Clear guidance and communication strategies will also be developed, tailored towards particular communities and population groups.

The programme is expected to be extended in the ‘coming weeks’ as PHE receives more requests for assistance, with the NVAP to offer support for countries to assess variants as they emerge. The UK plans to collaborate with Singapore and the African Centre for Disease Control in Ethiopia.


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