Coronavirus stamtræ

DTU develops global platform for sharing coronavirus data

Wednesday 06 May 20


Frank Møller Aarestrup
Professor, Head of Research Group
National Food Institute
+45 35 88 62 81

About the illustration

SARS-CoV-2 family tree. Reseachers are using sequecing analyses to create the virus’ family tree, which can help to show how the virus has developed and whether it is mutating.

A team of researchers at the Technical University of Denmark, DTU, is working with European partners to develop a platform where researchers worldwide can share and retrieve raw data on the novel coronavirus’ genetic makeup for use in e.g. developing vaccines or diagnosing illness.

For years, researchers have used data hubs to share huge amounts of raw data with colleagues around the world. However, the sheer volume of data on some platforms can be an obstruction to using them effectively due to the time it takes to download relevant data. As an example, in a research project at the National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark, it took researchers half a year to download data from such a database.

Ever since the discovery of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, researchers worldwide have scrutinized the virus to map its genetic makeup. Such data can be used e.g. to diagnose people who are sick with COVID-19—the illness caused by SARS-CoV-2—to develop a vaccine or treatment. So far, no platform has existed for researchers to share data specifically on coronavirus.

The pandemic has sped up new project

Therefore, the National Food Institute is now working with several European partners to establish a global data hub exclusively for raw data about SARS-CoV-2’s genetic makeup. The researchers are drawing on the expertise they have gained in the recently completed, EU-funded COMPARE project, in which they built such a data hub for antimicrobial resistance genes.

The DTU team’s contribution relates particularly to the ongoing sequencing analysis of raw data, which researchers from around the world submit to the data hub. The researchers can use such sequencing data to construct the virus’ family tree—so-called phylogenetic trees—that can help to show how the virus has developed and whether it is mutating. 

By helping as many of the world’s scientists as possible to work from the same dataset, the team behind the data hub can help create an overview of how SARS-CoV-2 spreads and which variants of the virus circulate in the different countries.

Data are also useful for ascertaining whether certain variants are associated with various patterns of illness around the world, as well as to better diagnose illness and develop a vaccine.

Plans were in place to develop such virus-focused databases as part of a new five-year EU-funded Horizon 2020 project, VEO, of which Professor Frank Møller Aarestrup from the National Food Institute is co-coordinator. However, at the request of the EU, work has been sped up to ensure that the COVID-19 database can be put into use as soon as possible.

Read more

For several years, the Research Group for Genomic Epidemiology at the National Food Institute has worked with colleagues around the world to develop a system that makes it possible to exchange and interpret information in real time. As such, it would be possible to use the global surveillance data e.g., to manage diseases that threaten to spread beyond a country’s borders and develop into pandemics.

Read more about genome sequencing and the National Food Institute’s research in this area, which is helping to establish international standards for the detection, monitoring and study of global spread of pathogenic microorganisms and antimicrobial resistant bacteria: Whole genome sequencing.