Unseen Ideas #3: Ebola gene sequencing – Seeing the bigger picture

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To stop an epidemic, diagnosis is not enough. You need to track it by monitoring viral transmission and evolution as quickly as possible. In Makeni, Sierra Leone, a hotspot for transmission and centre of the Ebola epidemic in 2014, that was a problem.

But Ian Goodfellow, Professor of Virology at the University of Cambridge, had an idea. After months of convincing, with support from Public Health England he travelled to Makeni with a small team, building one of the first diagnostic laboratories in Sierra Leone on a scrubland building suite. With help from Wellcome and Thermo Fisher, Ian brought a gene sequencer. With this, the team could quickly produce whole virus genome sequences, effectively tracking the epidemic. Just over a year later, the WHO declared the Ebola epidemic finally over.

It has changed the work of people like Dr Raoul Emeric at the University of Makeni. Ian donated the sequencer and trained Raoul and his colleagues in the latest techniques to track emerging infectious diseases. When a new case of Ebola appeared in 2016, Raoul and his colleagues were able to find the genetic sequence within 48 hours. Sierra Leone was ready.

Wellcome supports the work of people like Ian and Raoul because only by creating new knowledge can we understand how things work, build on that knowledge and use it to improve health for everyone.

Visualisation of the spread of the 2013-16 West Africa Ebola epidemic used in this film and created by Gytis Dudas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4Ut4krp8GQ

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