Almost a month into a third nationwide lockdown, most of England seems to be in hibernation: stores are shuttered, high streets are deserted, and trains are almost empty. But in one small village in the countryside near Cambridge, in eastern England, there is a hive of activity.
Dressed in white lab coats and surgical masks, staff here scurry from machine to machine — robots and giant computers that are so heavy, they’re placed on solid steel plates to support their weight.
The staff at the Sanger Institute are much more than essential workers — right now, they’re doing some of the most important work on Earth: genetically sequencing the coronavirus. Internally, it’s called “Project Heron.”
The labor-intensive project, involving hundreds of people, is being done just down the road from the Cambridge pub that Francis Crick walked into in 1953 to declare he’d “found the secret of life” — the structure of DNA. Today that discovery is allowing scientists to spot dangerous mutations in the genetic code of coronavirus that could make the pandemic much worse than it already is.
“We’re looking for mutations that may allow the virus to either be more transmissible or to cause more severe disease, and particularly now that vaccines are beginning to be rolled out globally, we’re looking potentially for mutations that we think might affect the ability of the vaccines to protect people,” said Ewan Harrison, a microbiologist who is helping coordinate the network of scientists working on the Covid-19 genomics operation in the UK.
Less than two months ago, that network of scientists and Britain’s growing mountain of genetic data helped to identify and trace the spread of the variant that has now become dominant in the UK.