Genetic scientists who mapped the spread of Covid-19 said that there were at least 35 cases that caused an outbreak here.
ESR (Institute of Environmental Science and Research) has analyzed virus samples to try to build a comprehensive picture of how the virus spreads throughout the country – and how the virus mutates along the way.
The main goal of scientists is to genetically map each case, which can provide invaluable insights in fighting disease.
New Zealand’s first Covid-19 case was reported on February 28 – someone in his 60s who had arrived from Iran.
Only one month later, the whole country was locked, with the border closed tightly and all important services had to be closed.
The head of ESR bioinformatics, Joep de Ligt, said the genomic sequencing carried out so far showed the outbreak was produced by several cases.
“At present there are at least 35 unique introductions. They come from all over the world, so we have seen them from Europe, from Iran, from North America,” he said.
“This is consistent with what other countries see – it is these international travelers who bring it over the narrow window before the border is closed.”
The scientists read the DNA sample of Covid-19 and, because of small mutations that occur when the virus spreads, they can trace the chain of transmission and determine its origin.
“It’s a bit like Where’s Wally? Or Spot the Difference, where you have an image of the original virus and you compare it [with the picture from new cases] and look for the difference. “
Their main goal is to analyze each case here.
So far they have sorted 125 samples from 623 cases that have been sent to the ESR.
Dr. Jemma Geoghegan from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Otago University has analyzed and interpreted the data.
He said the low number of infected people put scientists in a good position to build a complete picture of the virus in the country.
“We are in a very unique position to be able to do that. This will give us a truly extraordinary set of data to help us understand how the virus spreads here, what happens when we close our borders, what happens when we enter to level 4 lockdown, for example, and when we start lifting the lock restriction, what happens to virus transmission. “
An infectious disease expert, Professor David Murdoch, said understanding viral genetics is a very helpful supplement for tracing more traditional contacts, which can rely on people’s assumptions and memories.
“Most of the information we get about identifying sources and how the transmission chain occurs is through interviews and finding out what people have done and the contacts they have,” he said.
“That is obviously very useful but genetic material also provides different details and in many ways much better about the specific strain that people have – where the chain of transmission originated, where the virus might have been imported from and who has been in contact with whom.”
Scientists have obtained DNA sequences from the first confirmed Covid-19 case and so far there is no evidence to suggest that the virus was here before February 28.
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