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Newer Gene Sequencing Might Help Track Spread of Latest Coronavirus in China

HealthDay News
by -- Robert Preidt
Updated: Jan 31st 2020

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FRIDAY, Jan. 31, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- As China races to stem the spread of a new coronavirus that has now infected nearly 10,000 people and killed more than 200, researchers report that a novel approach to gene sequencing could help monitor coronaviruses more effectively.

Coronaviruses in bats have been linked to the outbreak from the virus labeled 2019-nCoV, as well as outbreaks of diseases like SARS and MERS.

Next-generation sequencing (NGS) is used to monitor how viruses spread and evolve in animals, but routine and large-scale monitoring with NGS can be expensive and labor-intensive, and can miss less abundant viral markers in samples.

Those issues have led geneticists to develop less costly and more efficient gene sequencing strategies.

In a new study, researchers outline a new enrichment strategy for monitoring coronaviruses, especially those that originate in bats.

In this approach, the gene sequencing is "enriched" with what the researchers call probes. They're tiny fragments of genetic material that find and bind to viral DNA, and they could provide a quick way to identify where viral genetic material might be hiding.

In tests, the probes successfully identified coronaviruses, and this enrichment approach increased sensitivity and reduced sequencing costs, according to the authors of the study published Jan. 29 in the journal mSphere.

They said this approach could help them maintain a library of genetic material from emerging coronaviruses, and track the origin and evolution of coronaviruses that cause outbreaks.

"We don't want to declare that enrichment is the panacea for all NGS challenges, but in this case, I do think it's a step in the right direction," said study co-leader Linfa Wang, director of the Program in Emerging Infectious Diseases at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore.

Coronaviruses in bats are particularly important to monitor, because it's believed that these viruses have the potential to infect other animals, including humans, Wang noted.

The coronavirus that caused the deadly SARS outbreak in 2003 is closely related to those found in bats and likely originated in them. The same is true of the 2019-nCoV virus.

The researchers said bats are also known reservoirs of the Ebola virus, Marburg virus, Nipah virus and Hendra virus, even though they usually don't have symptoms from the viruses.

"Coronaviruses, especially those that are bat-borne, remain an important source of emerging infectious diseases," Wang said in a journal news release.

When there aren't outbreaks, researchers can create up-to-date banks of probes associated with known forms of coronaviruses, he said. During outbreaks, researchers can use that information to track the evolution of viruses and spread of infections in animals and people.

"To really have enrichment NGS be successful, we need to treat our probe library as a living library. This will be an ongoing pursuit for us," Wang said.

As of Wednesday, the coronavirus outbreak in China continued to spread. There were 5,974 confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV and the number of deaths surpassed 132.

Five cases have been reported in the United States. Other countries/areas with reported cases include Thailand (14); Hong Kong (8); Taiwan, Australia and Macau (5 each); Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Malaysia (4 each); France (3); Canada and Vietnam (2 each); and Nepal, Cambodia and Germany (1 each).

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on 2019-nCoV.