Unlocking the Covid Code

Scientists can now sequence an entire genome overnight. This technology has been the key tool in identifying and tracking Covid variants.

Jon Gertner | New York Times | March 25, 2021

Edward Holmes was in Australia on a Saturday morning in early January 2020, talking on the phone with a Chinese scientist named Yong-Zhen Zhang who had just sequenced the genome of a novel pathogen that was infecting people in Wuhan. The two men — old friends — debated the results. “I knew we were looking at a respiratory virus,” recalls Holmes, a virologist and professor at the University of Sydney. He also knew it looked dangerous.

Could he share the genetic code publicly? Holmes asked. Zhang was in China, on an airplane waiting for takeoff. He wanted to think it over for a minute. So Holmes waited. He heard a flight attendant urging Zhang to turn off his phone.

“OK,” Zhang said at last. Almost immediately, Holmes posted the sequence on a website called Virological.org; then he linked to it on Twitter. Holmes knew that researchers around the world would instantly start unwinding the pathogen’s code to try to find ways to defeat it.

One day sensors might ‘sip the air’ so that a genomic app on our phones can tell us if there’s a pathogen lurking in a room.

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