The UK’s efforts to tackle the monkeypox outbreak will receive a huge boost with the creation of a new research consortium working together to develop better diagnostic tests, identify potential therapies and study vaccine effectiveness and the virus’ spread.
Bringing together 25 leading researchers and scientists from 12 institutions across the UK, the consortium has received £2 million from the Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC), both part of UK Research and Innovation.
The consortium is led by The Pirbright Institute and the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research.
The researchers at institutes and universities will work closely with experts at government agencies – the Animal and Plant Health Agency, UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), and Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) – to study the current outbreak and inform the public health response in the UK and internationally.
The consortium will focus on building our understanding in a number of key areas, including:
Developing new tests and identifying potential control measures:
- Developing sensitive point-of-care tests to speed up diagnosis, such as lateral flow tests or LAMP* tests. The lateral flow test development will be conducted with Global Access Diagnostics (GADx) to develop a product which could later be manufactured at scale and used clinically worldwide, including in low/middle income countries.
- Screening potential drugs to treat monkeypox in human cells in the lab to determine which ones could be developed for further testing.
- Studying the virus, how it infects humans and its susceptibility to the immune response to identify targets for future therapies.
Studying the virus:
- Characterising the genome of the virus and studying how it is evolving, and how this is linked to changes in the transmission and pathology of the virus.
- Understanding the human immune response to the virus and the vaccine, including studying samples from infected individuals.
- Identifying animal reservoirs and potential spill-over routes of transmission between animals and humans.
Learning from the vaccine roll-out:
- Studying the effectiveness of the smallpox vaccine by tracking the immune responses after primary and secondary vaccination of up to 200 individuals.
Professor Bryan Charleston, co-lead from The Pirbright Institute, said: “The implications of the current monkeypox outbreak are huge. As well as tackling the current outbreak, we also need to be fully prepared for the next outbreak, because worldwide there’s a huge reservoir of infection. One of the key ways we can do this is to develop rapid tests, which are very important to help clinicians on the front line to manage the disease.”
Professor Massimo Palmarini, co-lead from the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, said: “Monkeypox is a public health challenge, so taking decisive, collective action to better understand this virus is paramount. By bringing together research expertise in different areas, we will harness the UK’s world-leading knowledge to learn more about how the virus works and spreads and provide the foundations for the development of potential new treatments.”
Professor Geoffrey Smith, from the University of Cambridge, said: “Few would have predicted that monkeypox virus would be causing a global epidemic in 2022. The ability to respond quickly to this new challenge has been helped greatly not just by the swift and welcome response of UKRI, but also by decades of support for the study of orthopoxviruses from UKRI and the Wellcome Trust. The information gained from those studies is valuable in the fight against monkeypox virus.”
Professor Melanie Welham, Executive Chair of BBSRC, said:“One of the real strengths of the UK’s scientific response to disease outbreaks is the way that we can draw on leading researchers from all over the country, who can pool their expertise to deliver results, fast. Long-term support for animal and human virus research has ensured we have the capability to respond with agility.
“This new national consortium will study the unprecedented monkeypox outbreak to better understand how to tackle it. This will feed rapidly into global public health strategies, developing new diagnostic tests and identifying potential therapies.”
Professor Isabel Oliver, UKHSA Chief Scientific Officer, said: “Thanks to the combined efforts of partners there is very high awareness of the disease, its symptoms and how to seek help and prevent transmission among those at higher risk. It’s encouraging that we’re moving in the right direction with new monkeypox cases currently low. The research from this consortium is vital and will put us in an even stronger position to quickly detect cases and better understand the transmission of the virus, helping to protect more people who are at risk now and from future outbreaks.”
Consortium members include researchers from:
- Animal and Plant Health Agency
- Guy’s and St. Thomas NHS Foundation Trust
- Imperial College London
- MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research
- The Pirbright Institute
- UK Health Security Agency
- University of Birmingham
- University of Cambridge
- University of Edinburgh
- University of Oxford
- University of Surrey
The monkeypox virus outbreak originated in West Africa. The current worldwide outbreak of cases spreading outside this area was first identified in May 2022. This is the first time that many monkeypox cases and clusters have been reported in non-endemic areas.
In the UK there have been more than 3,500 confirmed cases since May, although new case numbers are currently falling. Internationally, WHO reports it has spread to 106 countries and territories with 25 confirmed deaths.