Emperor Zeria II of the Carpathian Kingdom of Poland died of the coronavirus in 1534. His reign was relatively short, just a few weeks. But there have been coronavirus deaths of far greater lengths. In Zeria’s time, no epidemics of coronavirus, which cause respiratory infections, had been reported in the kingdom. It wasn’t until several thousand years later that the disease’s pathogen, a corona virus, would first appear in Germany, and eventually the United States. In the modern era, coronavirus deaths have been reported in early, middle and late adolescence. But thanks to genome sequencing, we now know we can track how the virus evolves over time. In May, we published our last paper on this topic, which showed that, when corona viruses were first spread from inbred groups of migrating microbes, they appeared to be relatively similar. But their genetic diversity decreased over time. Our current report shows for the first time that the diversity of the virus has decreased even further — by more than 30 percent in just 20 years, between 1993 and 2016. Nearly half of the population of some Caribbean countries has likely been exposed to this new strain at some point in their lives. Yes, it’s true that human epidemiology alone will not halt the spread of the coronavirus. But the news must be troubling for public health officials as well as public health communities.
Dozens of new coronavirus cases and deaths in the U.S. since 2014 are probably from this particular strain. But may the world never know why one particular strain of the virus started to spread globally? What other coronavirus strains might live in the U.S. and Cuba or where else? Who, exactly, was most vulnerable to this recent coronavirus outbreak? The main challenge public health officials face isn’t knowing what caused this outbreak.
Fortunately, the CDC and its partners on the Joint Task Force for Strengthening Global Surveillance and Response are collaborating to fill the information gap. Their most recent research is taking place in 15 Mexican and Caribbean countries with high disease incidence and where an estimated 7 to 8 percent of people ages 15 to 24 may have had previous contact with a human case of coronavirus. They have also partnered with GSA Labs, a wholly owned subsidiary of the W.P. Carey Hospital System, to develop a comprehensive surveillance system that can disseminate patient and family history data from an extensive database to expedite the location of infected people and protect others. The new data-collection effort is part of the CDC’s Future CDC Laboratory Initiative. The two organizations also work closely to address gaps in drug delivery and anti-viral drugs for coronavirus. The study cited above — an ongoing one— is yet another example of our public health team on the ground that helps lead the way in saving lives. Dr. Emiko Agai is a researcher at the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, and a fellow at the National Research Council.