‘We’ve been seeing viral evolution happen in front of our eyes’: How studying COVID genetics is revolutionizing medicine

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Credit: Nathalie Lees
Credit: Nathalie Lees

“We have basically been seeing viral evolution happen in front of our eyes for the past year and a half,” [Dr. David Ho] says.

[Ho] is among the vanguard of researchers aggressively finding ways to dismantle SARS-CoV-2 from the inside out—by mining the virus’s genetic code for signs of weakness.

The viral genome, it turns out, is an underutilized pool of useful information about the virus’s likes, dislikes and survival strategies, all coded in the 30,000 base pairs that make up its genome. 

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Ho’s group was among the first to identify a new mutation in SARS-CoV-2 that was responsible for a growing proportion of new infections diagnosed in New York City in February… Ho also added these sequences to the public database GISAID (which stands for Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data, reflecting its initial focus on flu), which collects disease-causing genetic codes from researchers around the world. 

“When we looked at the database, we found these mutations were already there,” Ho says. “It’s just that no one was scrutinizing or interrogating the database on a regular basis.”

That’s already changing, and GISAID is becoming the digital watering hole for public-health, infectious-disease and policy-making experts.

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