Thanks to an international team of researchers, Ebola outbreak has a real-time coverage on the scientific community. MSF and the other ONG follow the spread of the outbreak, by sequencing the virus’ genome from people in Sierra Leone. Now people know that virus is mutating from the beginning of this disease.
An international team of researchers sequenced 99 Ebola genomes, with extremely high accuracy, from 78 people diagnosed with Ebola in Sierra Leone in June. “The Ebola genome is incredibly simple. It has just seven genes. In general, these viruses are amazing because they are these tiny things that can do a lot of damage” says Pardi Sabeti, a computational biologist at HarvardUniversity and the lead author of the study. The team helped to find the first Ebola cases in Africa. They also immediately shipped diagnostic samples from the patients back to the U.S. and started sequencing the viruses’ genomes. “We had 20 people in my lab working around-the-clock,” Sabeti says.
While moving through the human population in West Africa, she says, the virus has been collecting mutations about twice as quickly as it did while circulating among animals in the past decade or so.
“The more time you give a virus to mutate and the more human-to-human transmission you see” she says, “the more opportunities you give it to fall upon some mutation that could make it more easily transmissible or more pathogenic”.
Sabeti says she doesn’t know if that’s happening yet. But the rapid change in the virus’ genome could weaken the tools researchers have to detect Ebola or, potentially, to treat patients.