As the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak spreads in Asia, Harry speaks with Phil Febbo, the chief medical officer of Illumina, one of the world’s largest makers of equipment for high-throughput DNA sequencing. Febbo highlights sequencing’s emerging contribution to the understanding and treatment of infectious disease.
Rapid sequencing of viral genomes is giving physicians and epidemiologists new ways to identify, track, and potentially slow outbreaks of viral infections such as the novel Wuhan coronavirus. That means high-throughput genome sequencing—which had predominantly been a research tool—is taking its place as a front-line weapon in the fight to prevent pandemics, says Febbo, a medical oncologist. “Last year, 40 percent of our consumables in sequencing were for clinical testing, and we see the clinical testing increasing at a pace that’s faster than research testing,” he says.
Whole-genome viral sequencing, as a supplement to more traditional PCR-based testing for RNA sequences, can not only reveal exactly which virus is afflicting a given patient, but can reveal where a virus originated and how it is evolving to evade vaccines or other interventions.
“The fact that the WHO heard of the first cases [of the Wuhan coronavirus] at the end of December, and the New England Journal published the full genome on January 24, within a month, because of the availability of sequencing, already, places like the CDC are using that information to design the probes for the RT-PCR to develop front line tests—never before has anything like that happened,”