Current Weather
The Spy FM

Scientists Go Deep On Genes Of SARS-Like Virus

Filed by KOSU News in Science.
September 26, 2012

When an unknown virus emerges, disease detectives turn to gene sequencers — not magnifying glasses — to identify the culprit.

So when a new type of coronavirus killed a man in Saudia Arabia and hospitalized another in the U.K., investigators got cracking.

Both patients showed symptoms similar SARS. But thanks to fast and accurate gene sequencing, health officials quickly realized that this isn’t SARS or even a known coronavirus that causes colds. Rather it’s a totally new virus that needs to be handled with caution until more is known about it.

Yesterday scientists at Britain’s Health Protection Agency partially decoded the new virus’s genetic sequence. They’ve placed the virus on the family tree of coronaviruses. And even given the virus a temporary name, which I have to warn you is quite a mouthful: London1_novel CoV 2012.

The virus appears to be most closely related to a cluster of bat viruses, and “it is genetically very different than SARS,” Ralph Baric, a microbiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells Shots.

But the DNA sequence isn’t just a tool for hanging the virus on the right branch of the family tree. It has helped health workers rapidly respond to the disease in ways they couldn’t when SARS emerged in China in 2002.

With the new virus’s DNA at their fingertips, health workers alerted the WHO about the potentially dangers of the virus just three weeks after the second patient showed symptoms.

With the SARS epidemic, it took over three months — and hundreds of infected people — before the WHO was contacted. That epidemic caused over 8,000 infections and killed nearly a thousand people.

This rapid detection of new viruses, Baric says, is due in part to a technology, called deep sequencing. The method allows scientists to differentiate closely related viruses and ones that are rapidly mutating. Deep sequencing decodes genes at a very high level of accuracy so even small changes are visible.

Since the SARS epidemic, virologists have used deep sequencing to discover dozens of new coronavirus in bats, badgers, birds and humans from around the world. They’ve built a family tree of coranviruses with these sequences showing how the viruses relate to each other.

When a new virus appears on the scene, like the London strain, scientists can quickly sequence it and figure out where it fits in. If it sits on top of a known pathogen, then doctors may have a good idea of how to counter it. If it’s completely new, as in this case, health workers can alert the WHO and take extra precautions before it spreads.

The genetic code for the new coronavirus also gives doctors a tool for quickly finding new cases, Baric say. They can even go “back in time and see if the virus caused other strange respiratory illnesses over the past few months,” Baric says.

“It is fairly common for doctors to keep samples from fatal respiratory cases,” Baric says. Doctors can now sequence the samples and look for the new virus’s genes.

Baric thinks these types of tools make deep sequencing “one of the most important advances in public health.”

“There’s tremendous expertise and capabilities for identifying and tracking new viruses” he says. “This is a huge public health advantage and it’s been put in place [since the SARS epidemic] to protect the global health.” [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

Leave a Reply

5AM to 6AM The Splendid Table

The Splendid Table

Hosted by award-winning Lynne Rossetto Kasper, The Splendid Table is a culinary, culture and lifestyle program that celebrates food and its ability to touch the lives and feed the souls of everyone.

Listen Live Now!

6AM to 7AM Travel with Rick Steves

Travel with Rick Steves

"Travel with Rick Steves" is a fun, hour-long, and practical talk show with guest experts and calls and questions from travelers. This weekly program is a lively conversation between travelers and the experts as we learn to explore our world smartly, smoothly, and thoughtfully.

View the program guide!

7AM to 9AM Weekend Edition

Weekend Edition

From civil wars in Bosnia and El Salvador, to hospital rooms, police stations, and America\'s backyards, National Public Radio's Peabody Award-winning correspondent Scott Simon brings a well-traveled perspective to his role as host of Weekend Edition Saturday.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center