How sequencing helps solve the "unknown" of novel viral outbreaks

When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the SAR-CoV-2 (novel coronavirus) viral outbreak a public health emergency of international concern in late January, the unknowns were unnerving: How dangerous is it? How does it spread? Could I have been exposed? How can I protect myself and my family?

Sequencing novel viruses like SAR-CoV-2 can help solve these unknowns by providing the viral genome for dissection and interpretation. Just weeks after SAR-CoV-2 was reported to the WHO, its genome was published in New England Journal of Medicine enabling early insights into the origin and spread of the virus. This is important in developing diagnostics, surveillance and vaccine responses. While more work is needed to strengthen early outbreak detection and response globally, advances in sequencing have allowed scientists to characterize this virus' genome and share information on its biology and evolution to scientists around the world faster than ever.

In the coming weeks, we will learn more about SAR-CoV-2's infectiousness and virulence, and the effectiveness of treatments for those debilitated by it. So far only a minority of cases have been reported outside of China (447 of 46,997 confirmed cases as of 02-13-2020), but there has been limited access to SAR-CoV-2 testing in many countries so the true epidemiology of the virus may be underestimated. As the capacity for testing and surveillance is established across the globe over the next weeks, we will have a much better understanding of the scale and scope of the outbreak.

Viral outbreaks can be frightening. Thank you to the brave and tireless healthcare providers, researchers and everyone around the world working to manage the SAR-CoV-2 outbreak.