Detective shows are an entertainment staple on cable channels and streaming services alike. Viewers tune in to follow detectives as they assess crime scenes, interview witnesses, and chase the killers before they can strike again.
As it turns out, stopping a global pandemic isn’t so different from that type of detective work. Worldwide collaboration between medical experts, scientists, and researchers continues more than six months after the emergence of the coronavirus. What have they learned, and what will happen next?
Understanding the Virus Origins
The coronavirus took the entire world by surprise. On December 30, Dr. Li Wenliang, a doctor in the emergency department of Wuhan Central Hospital, sought advice from other doctors regarding seven patients with pneumonia he had placed into quarantine. Dr. Li feared he was witnessing another outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).
Of course, it turned out that Dr. Li had identified the first wave of COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) instead. Since then, experts have sought to understand the origins of the coronavirus. Health workers in Wuhan realized the majority of their patients worked at Huanan Seafood Market, which was quickly quarantined on January 1.
Did the virus emerge at the seafood market? Experts still aren’t sure, but they do unanimously agree that a large outbreak took place at the seafood market, an outbreak that ultimately led to the global pandemic we now face.
It only took nine days after the first reported COVID-19 death in Wuhan for new cases to develop in Japan, South Korea and Thailand.
Profiling the Virus Down to Genomes
Unlike a single serial killer in a TV series, the coronavirus pandemic couldn’t be tracked and arrested in one single location. The virus rapidly spread from country to country until nearly half of the world was in a state of lockdown.
Experts had to fight the coronavirus a different way: by profiling the virus down to its genomes.
Scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology took nasal swabs from the first known coronavirus patients and analyzed the virus for its complete genetic code, known as its genome. One expert unlocked the genome, they could reveal exactly how the coronavirus might spread.
While the human genome consists of over three billion genetic letters, the genome of a virus may be 15,000 or 20,000 genetic letters long. Encoded within it are instructions the virus might need to replicate itself in the future, resulting in the spread of infection and disease.
Scientists usually need months or years to decipher a genome, but the highly contagious nature of the coronavirus forced infectious disease experts to move quicker than ever before. By January 10, the first genomic sequence of COVID-19 was published by Professor Yong-Zhen Zhang.
That genomic sequence answered many vital questions and helped experts understand how to test for, diagnose, and vaccinate against the novel coronavirus.
Containing the Outbreak
Even with the genome established, it would have been impossible to stop the virus in its tracks. Local governments shifted their attention to tracking, tracing, and isolating COVID-19 in every way possible.
Contract tracers have played a critical role in efforts to contain the pandemic. Contract tracers are “infectious disease detectives” trained to connect the dots between a confirmed cause of COVID-19 and the infected person’s most recent contacts. Depending on the information uncovered, contract tracers recommend how to quarantine or isolate the people, buildings, and organizations potentially exposed to the disease.
Governments also sought to prevent transmission of COVID-19 with enforced lockdowns. Bars, restaurants, retail stores, schools, universities, and other high-contact areas shutdown as residents remained home for weeks or months at a time.
Racing to Develop Treatments and Vaccines
The final piece of the puzzle lies in the treatment of and vaccination against the coronavirus. Hundreds of clinical trials are currently underway to test new drug candidates developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies, and government agencies are vying to accelerate a five to ten year vaccine development process into 12-18 months.
“We have to go as fast as we can,” says Jorge Kalil, medical director at the University of Sao Paulo. “But I don’t think the first to arrive will be the winner. It’s not a car race. The winner will be the best vaccine, the one that works for the most amount of people – ideally 90% – and stops both symptoms and transmission.”