Viral genomics

Between 2013 and 2015, an outbreak of Ebola virus killed more than 11,000 people. Broad Institute researchers quickly deployed real-time sequencing efforts that confirmed that the virus was primarily spreading through human-to-human contact rather than between animals and humans and that the viral genome was mutating. This work had a profound impact on how public health officials diagnosed the disease and developed strategies to contain it.

It’s a bitter irony that, for those in the global health community contending with viral outbreaks, many of the barriers to mounting an effective response are man-made. Geopolitical and cultural divides that separate us as people can inhibit research efforts and humanitarian aid. Viruses, meanwhile, pay little heed to such arbitrary boundaries; they prey instead on what we all have in common — our shared, human biology.

In the fall of 2014, Ebola Zaire did for viral hemorrhagic fever what Jaws did for sharks in the summer of ‘75. The first Ebola diagnosis (and later death) on U.S. soil touched off a nationwide panic. Suddenly, Ebola was everywhere—dominating headlines, trending on social media, fueling the 24-hour news cycle. For a time, the fear and misinformation fueling the hysteria threatened to undermine relief efforts and overshadow the ongoing tragedy in West Africa. But, as Broadie Aaron Lin discovered on a recent visit to Somerville High School, that hysteria also has a small silver lining.