Scientists worried about China’s lack of transparency about a month-old outbreak of pneumonia in the city of Wuhan breathed a sigh of relief today, after a consortium of researchers published a draft genome of the newly discovered coronavirus suspected of causing the outbreak.
“Potentially really important moment in global public health-must be celebrated, everyone involved in Wuhan, in China & beyond acknowledged, thanked & get all the credit,” Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust in London, wrote in a tweet. “Sharing of data good for public health, great for those who did the work. Just needs those incentives & trust.”
Also this morning, Wuhan health authorities reported the first death from the new disease. The patient was a 61-year old man who frequently visited the live market in Wuhan that most cases have been linked to. He also suffered from abdominal tumors and chronic liver disease and died on Thursday. The Wuhan Health Commission said 41 people so far have been confirmed to have been infected with the new virus; no new patients have been identified since 3 January.
News about the sequence came from Edward Holmes, a virologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Sydney in Australia, who tweeted the first notice about the availability of what he referred to as an “initial” sequence of the virus early this morning. Holmes is a member of a consortium led by Yong-Zhen Zhang of the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center & School of Public Health that posted the sequence on an open-access site, virological.org. The consortium said it had also deposited the sequence in GenBank. In a brief note, the group said researchers were free to analyze and share the data, but asked that groups “communicate with us if you wish to publish results that use these data in a journal.”
The analyzing began immediately. Evolutionary biologist Andrew Rambaut at the University of Edinburgh calculated that the virus has a 89% similarity to a SARS-related member of the Sarbecoviruses, a subgenus within the Betacoronavirus genus.
Potentially really important moment in global public health-must be celebrated.
Kevin Olival, vice-president for research of the EcoHealth Alliance in New York City, published a phylogenetic tree on Twitter and concurred that the new virus “definitely clusters” with the SARS-related coronaviruses. (Later in the day, Rambaut criticized the fact that Olival did not credit the researchers who isolated the virus and sequenced it. “This is one of the reasons why people are reticent to share data,” Rambaut wrote on Twitter. “No acknowledgement of where the data comes from or who generated it. The [phylogenetic tree] is even branded with a logo.”)
Ralph Baric, a coronavirus researcher at the University of North Carolina, notes that of the four known SARS-related bat viruses capable of infecting humans, this one is the most distant from SARS itself. After downloading the sequence last night, his lab immediately began trying to reverse-engineer a live virus from the sequence, which can be helpful to develop antibody tests and to start experiments in animal models. “If you want to have a strong public health response, you have to do this quickly,” says Baric, who leads one of the few labs in the world that can re-create coronaviruses just from their sequences. (Bureaucratic hurdles would make it difficult for China to share the virus quickly with other countries, he says.)
Baric hopes this virus’s discovery and the response to it illustrate the speed at which scientists can move by working together. “One of the things that’s sad is that the public doesn’t realize how incredibly competent the public health and the basic science community are at going from a newly discovered virus to a tremendous amount of capacity to trace and try to control its spread,” Baric says.
With reporting by Martin Enserink.