By Professor Sharon Peacock CBE FMedSci

Executive Director and Chair, COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium

When confronted with a novel threat, how do we decide on an appropriate response in the absence of prior experience? Billions of years of evolution have endowed modern humans with the ability to draw upon a wide range of previous experiences to select relevant snippets of information to inform our actions. In prehistory, this relied on innate instincts laid down over aeons, later supplemented with spoken testament, passed from generation to generation. However, with the advent of the written word, the printing press, the internet, and electronic communication, we get direct access to the thoughts and wisdom of those that came before. Furthermore, in the digital era, in addition to eyewitness accounts, we can also preserve primary data sources for future generations to reanalyse. The ability to not only consider the interpretation of a phenomenon laid out in narrative form, but then also to re-interrogate the data first hand to see whether we agree with that interpretation underpin the aims and successes of the open science movement.

It is in this context that I am tremendously excited by the launch of the "Cracking Covid: The history of COG-UK" exhibition.

I have had the honour of leading the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium since its inception and observing and supporting the herculean efforts from individuals across the United Kingdom and beyond. To meet the threat posed by the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, we drew on the collective experience and expertise of scientists, clinicians and public health workers from all four nations of the UK to stand up a national SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance programme in just a few weeks during March and April 2020. Over the course of 18 months, consortium members sequenced and analysed an unprecedented number of viral genomes, which provided actionable insights to clinicians, infection control teams and policy makers. On handover of responsibility for routine sequencing to the UK public health agencies in September 2021, COG-UK re-focussed its efforts on a triad of research, data linkage and training, to ensure that every possible benefit could be realised from the public funding received by the consortium.

Through COG-UK, around one million SARS-CoV-2 genomes were sequenced and linked with epidemiological and clinical metadata for analysis. This fed into more than 100 publications, as well as countless reports, blogs, seminars, workshops and conversations, in which consortium members shared data, insights, and learning that resulted from this phenomenal collective effort. Focused primarily on the science and shared and communicated in a highly technical format with users of the data, much of this content will be inaccessible to non-experts interested in learning about the role that genomics played in the UK’s pandemic responses. In addition, such material rarely captures the human story of those involved.

Curated by Dr Lara Marks, a noted historian of medicine, this exhibition seeks to address this by capturing the history of the consortium, in the words of its members. It explores the public outputs of the consortium through the lenses of more than 80 COG-UK members who agreed to participate in an interview, intertwined with the narrative of the pandemic as it emerged and developed over time. It reflects the varied range of individual backgrounds and expertise that contributed to the consortium, and aims to provide a valuable resource for people to consider what COG-UK achieved, how we achieved it, and what lessons this might hold for the future. This is a very human story.

The exhibition is intentionally pitched to be accessible to non-expert readers, and as noted by Lara, can only begin to scratch the surface of the full history of COG-UK. However, it provides a valuable steppingstone to those seeking insights to inform future pandemic response efforts or other large-scale multisector scientific collaborations.

Any historical account is subject to the sometimes selective and slowly fading memories of the people whose testimony it is based upon. Indeed, given the upheaval encountered in the years since SARS-CoV-2 emerged, it would not be surprising if people actively chose to forget some of the more painful details of this period. Furthermore, our understanding of events, the factors that drive them, and the impacts that they have are subject to change over time as new information is unearthed and as societal views, attitudes, and beliefs shift. As such, there may be pieces of information in the exhibition that are either incomplete or inaccurate in some respects. This is by no means intentional, and I would encourage anyone viewing this exhibition who spots where content could be improved to feel able to add their comment and work by contacting the curator. This can only serve to strengthen the account as a living document.

I will not use this foreword to restate my own views about the lessons for posterity that can be drawn from COG-UK; you can see that throughout the exhibition. I would also hope that viewers of the exhibition will look upon all the materials included and draw their own conclusions. However, I will take this opportunity to personally thank everybody who devoted so much time and energy to the consortium over the past three years, whether they contributed to this historical account or not. I would also like to thank Lara for curating the exhibition and helping to preserve our stories and knowledge. This includes on-going access to key blogs, reports and talks.

I firmly believe that these accounts will be of great benefit to future generations looking to the history books for experience to draw upon as they encounter new threats and challenges. If you are reading this under such circumstances, I hope that you find the knowledge, inspiration and courage in these pages that you are looking for.

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