Wuhan city in the Hubei Province of China witnessed an outbreak of pneumonia towards the end of December 2019 and on December 31, World Health Organization (WHO) put out an alert about it. Interestingly, the virus did not match any other previously known virus. This never-seen-before virus, till now, has claimed lives of 80 people and infected more than 2,000 Chinese citizens, according to reports.
One week after the WHO declared the alert, Chinese authorities confirmed that they have identified a new virus and linked it to the family of viruses known as coronoaviruses. This family includes deadly SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle-east respiratory syndrome) viruses. This new virus is named as “2019-nCoV”.
Now, within a very short period of the outbreak in China, this new virus has shown the symptom of a rapid expansion in different parts of the globe. According to reports, French authorities have confirmed three cases of infection in the country on Friday, which are the first known cases in Europe, while Australia has announced to have detected four cases. Again in US, a total of 60 patients in 20 states under investigation are thought to be suffering from possible infection of this virus. On Sunday, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced third case of coronavirus infection—this time in southern California. Hong Kong has also declared a citywide emergency, the highest warning level with the extension of school holiday till February 17.
Scientists are yet to fully understand what is the destructive potential of the virus, its origination, the mode of transmission and how far it has spread.
But what has surprised everyone is the unbelievable rapid sequencing of the genome of the virus. Just within 10 days of the detection and identification of the virus, the genetic sequence has been made public. This was made possible by a massive collaborative effort of Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center & School of Public Health, in collaboration with the Central Hospital of Wuhan, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute for Communicable Disease Control and Prevention, Chinese Center for Disease Control, and the University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia.
The genome sequence is now publicly available at Genbank, the public repository where gene sequences of various organisms collected across various laboratories of the world are stored. Genbank is maintained by National Institute of Health (NIH), USA.
The unprecedented rapid sequencing of the coronavirus genome has also led scientists across the world to start experimentation on it. Purdue University structural biologist Andrew Mesecar has redirected his lab team to start analysing the DNA sequence. Notably, the coronavirus genome has a striking similarity with the genome of SARS, which affected some 8,000 people worldwide and killed 800 in 2002—the year when the viral outbreak occurred. The NIH has also got involved and according to reports, NIH’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana has asked some company to convert the information of DNA sequence to a real DNA that could be grown in lab dishes.
Karla Satchell, a professor of microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine said that “The pace is unmatched”. He said, “This is really new. Lots of people [in science] still try to hide what they’re doing, don’t want to talk about what they’re doing. And everybody out there is like: This is the case where we don’t worry about egos, we don’t worry about who’s first, we just care about solving the problem. The information flow has been really fast.”