A new genetic tool maps how deadly viruses spread around the world in real time
Wednesday, March 1, 2017
We remain utterly unprepared to deal with epidemics at a global scale. Just think of Ebola, which killed more than 11,000 people, or Zika, which left thousands of newborns with malformed brains and has now become an endemic disease.
The good news is that new inventions are continually improving our odds of succeeding against the next epidemic. One such invention, a clever genetic tool that maps in real time how viruses spread, has just won the Open Science Prize, given for “unleashing the power of data to advance discovery and improve health.” The researchers who developed it, Richard Neher of the University of Basel and Trevor Bedford of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, will each get $115,000 to make the tool accessible to scientists around the world and map disease-causing microbes beyond Ebola and Zika.
Viruses are scary because they can mutate and gain new powers much more quickly than any other kind of pathogen. At every transmission from one host to another, a virus’s DNA undergoes random tweaks to its small genome. In case of Ebola, for instance, one such transmission suspected to be from a wild animal to a two-year-old toddler in Guinea gave the virus the mutation it needed to spread faster than it had before and kill thousands of people.
- Health Care