Tracking the coronavirus—and failed containment efforts—by digging through its genome

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Credit: Reuters

In the unprecedented outbreak of a new coronavirus sweeping the world, the germ’s genetic material may ultimately tell the story not just of where it came from, but of how it spread and how efforts to contain it failed.

By tracking mutations to the virus as it spreads, scientists are creating a family tree in nearly real time, which they say can help pinpoint how the infection is hopping between countries.

When scientists in Brazil confirmed that country’s first case of coronavirus late in February, they were quick to sequence the germ’s genetic code and compare it with over 150 sequences already posted online, many from China.

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The patient, a 61-year-old from São Paulo, had traveled in Italy’s northern Lombardy region that month, so Italy was likely where he acquired the infection. But the sequence of his virus suggested a more complex story, linking his illness back to a sick passenger from China and an outbreak in Germany.

As a virus spreads, it mutates, developing random changes in single genetic letters in its genome. By tracking those changes, scientists can trace its evolution and learn which cases are most closely related. The latest maps already show dozens of branching events.

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