Before the 2020 pandemic was declared, scientists were concerned about mutations in SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – that could make it more transmissible, lethal, and evasive of natural immunity.

Researchers around the globe – including those at Virginia Tech’s Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC – quickly recognized the value of genome sequencing of the virus to track genetic changes as it spread.

A global leader in that effort, Sharon Peacock, executive director of the COVID-19 Genomics U.K. Consortium (COG-UK) that first detected the delta variant, will present an upcoming virtual public lecture on the important role that genetic sequencing plays in preventing and quelling pandemics.

“Sequencing has become a vital tool to detect, treat, and contain outbreaks, both now and in the future,” Peacock said during a speech to the World Health Consortium in October. “We have broken through a glass ceiling in wealthy nations where the value of pathogen sequencing has been fully realized and embraced by policy makers, politicians, and the public.”

Peacock, who is also a professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge and an elected member of the National Academy of Medical Sciences, will present “SARS-CoV-2 Variants – Past, Present, and Future” at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 20. Her talk is part of the 12th season of the Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture Series, hosted by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. The lecture is free and open to the public via Zoom and a live feed on the research institute website.

“Dr. Peacock is a world authority and powerful voice for the value of genetic sequencing in combating not only the current pandemic but future outbreaks as well,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology.  “She has played a pivotal role in the United Kingdom’s and the world’s response to the pandemic.”

Prior to the pandemic, Peacock’s research at Cambridge centered primarily around genome sequencing of pathogens to provide rapid detection to support public health, overcome antibiotic resistance, and prevent outbreaks in clinical settings. She has published more than 500 peer-reviewed papers on pathogen genomics, the evolution of bacterial and viral pathogen transmission, antibiotic resistance, and a wide range of infectious pathogens.

Since 2020, Peacock has also directed COG-UK, a consortium that employs large-scale, rapid whole-genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 to support public health efforts and vaccine development. As of this month, the consortium has sequenced more than 1.9 million COVID-19 samples from across the U.K.

Peacock also advocates for global equity, pinpointing access to scientific research and genome sequencing as a pinnacle weakness in ending the current pandemic, and preventing future ones.

“The prime example is vaccines. But the same is true for sequencing, so that a country may have no or limited knowledge about the variants that are circulating,” Peacock said in her 2021 World Health Consortium talk.

Locally at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, the Virginia Tech Molecular Diagnostics Lab, also conducts whole-genome sequencing and rapid mutational analysis testing of COVID-19 samples from across the Commonwealth in order to provide public health officials and health care providers with timely and precise actionable information.

Peacock is a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Pathologists, and an elected member of the European Molecular Biology Organization.

She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to medical microbiology in 2015, and was awarded the 2018 Unilever Colworth Prize for outstanding contributions to translational microbiology. Peacock earned a bachelor’s degree in medicine from Southampton University and her doctorate from the Open University.

This lecture may be viewed via Zoom or live webcast on the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute website.

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