Genetic tracking helps contain Ebola outbreaks. Why hasn’t it worked with the coronavirus?

Credit: Al-hadji Kudra Maliro/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The first sign that viral genomics might transform epidemiology came in the wake of the 2013-16 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. For the first time, on-the-ground, same-day genetic sequencing allowed epidemiologists to examine the genome of the virus as it spread.

Biostatisticians had used viral genomes to piece together the family tree of the Ebola outbreak, and then used that family tree to map the Ebola virus as it spread.

[B]y the time the novel coronavirus emerged in late 2019, the global health community was ready to dig into its genes.

[T]he virus is particularly difficult to track from its genome, as it mutates more slowly than other diseases. And because it spreads so quickly, even a few days of lag time in testing and sequencing can be too slow to contain an outbreak.

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As testing has become more widespread and the CDC rolls out a national sequencing partnership, studies have begun to show missed opportunities to contain the virus.

Eventually, these findings will help bring future waves of the coronavirus under control, [said the CDC’s Duncan MacCannell]. “The one thing that I think is going to be different about this epidemic is the amount of rich genomic data that’s going to be out there in the public domain.”

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