September 24, 2020 at 6:45 PM EDT
How genetic science helped expose a secret coronavirus outbreak
By Sarah Kaplan, Desmond Butler, Juliet Eilperin, Chris Mooney, Luis Velarde and Joe Fox
The coronavirus mutates as it moves through its victims. Infectious particles swabbed from a patient’s nose carry small but distinctive differences in its genome that can be used, like a molecular bar code, to track where the virus came from and how it had been transmitted.
By reading the virus’s RNA, Paraic Kenny, a tumor geneticist turned disease detective, could unveil how cases were connected to one another, exposing the secret spread of the disease.
The truth of what happened at Agri Star Meat and Poultry — and across America — is written in that code.
Small, stealthy and skilled at exploiting human vulnerabilities, the novel coronavirus seems tailor-made to wreak havoc on humanity. Its surface spikes fit as neatly as keys into the receptors that unlock our cells. It turns our organs into factories for its own reproduction, putting our molecular machinery to work building its proteins and transcribing its genome. In 24 hours it can fill a human’s respiratory tract with a trillion copies of itself.
And, with the cunning that comes from millennia of evolution, the virus exploits all of our most human habits. Traveling invisibly on the breath of its victims, it spreads most efficiently wherever we gather to work, to eat, to pray.
“It’s an amazing evolutionary machine dedicated to making more copies of itself,” Kenny said. “And it’s sadly very good at doing just that.”