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Genomics' Role in Ebola Fight

Not too long after the Ebola epidemic began raging in West Africa, Harvard University's Pardis Sabeti worked with Sheik Humarr Khan, the director of the Lassa virus ward at Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone who was treating Ebola patients there, to gather virus samples for sequencing. As the New Yorker reports, Sabeti, Khan, and their colleagues wanted to get a handle on how the virus is mutating and adapting to a human host.

"Right now, the virus's code is changing. As Ebola enters a deepening relationship with the human species, the question of how it is mutating has significance for every person on earth," writes Richard Preston in the New Yorker.

Sabeti and her colleagues published their results on the Ebola genome from 78 patients in Science in August. From this, Preston notes that they could see how the virus transmitted between patients — who had given the virus to whom — and how it changed as it was passed among different people.

“It shows that you can analyze Ebola in real time,” Sabeti tells him. “This virus is not a single entity. Now we have an entry into what the virus is doing, and now we can recognize what we are battling with at every point in time.”

And it is a personal battle. As Preston writes, five of the authors of that Science paper — including Khan — have died of Ebola.