Genome sequencing tracks outbreak of novel pneumonia virus

24 June 2013

An international collaboration has used genome sequencing and clinical monitoring to track an outbreak of a new viral infection associated with severe pneumonia.

The first cases of pneumonia caused by a novel β-coronavirus were described in September 2012 by the World Health Organization (WHO). Subsequently named Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), the virus has been identified in pneumonia patients in various countries in the Middle East and Europe; it can be transmitted between people very quickly, and may result in fatal infections.
In a new paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a team of researchers from Saudi Arabia, Canada, the US and UK report their findings from the study of a recent outbreak in a hospital in Saudi Arabia, in which 23 patients were infected and fifteen died. The work included sequencing and analysis of several viral genomes from patient samples using a deep sequencing technique developed at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute (WTSI) that can be completed within days.
The study revealed that the outbreak originated from a common ancestor virus between February and April 2012 and was transmitted directly between people; this information was consistent with the observations made by the hospital and confirmed that their corresponding infection control measures had limited the extent of the outbreak. It will inform planning about the best way to identify and control any future outbreaks.
Comment: Emerging viral infections such as the MERS coronavirus represent an important public health risk, especially given the potential for rapid global spread due to international travel. Genomic sequencing and analytical techniques are vital components in the fight to identify, understand and ultimately control new infectious diseases.

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