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How virus detectives trace the origins of an outbreak – and why it's so tricky

The prevention of future pandemics requires examining viral family trees. Stockcrafter/iStock via Getty Images Plus

How virus detectives trace the origins of an outbreak – and why it's so tricky

The prevention of future pandemics requires examining viral family trees. Stockcrafter/iStock via Getty Images Plus

How virus detectives trace the origins of an outbreak – and why it's so tricky

The prevention of future pandemics requires examining viral family trees. Stockcrafter/iStock via Getty Images Plus

How virus detectives trace the origins of an outbreak – and why it's so tricky

The prevention of future pandemics requires examining viral family trees. Stockcrafter/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Plant, animal or human, the methods are largely the same. Tracking down the origins of a virus involves a combination of extensive fieldwork, thorough lab testing and quite a bit of luck.

Marilyn J. Roossinck, Penn State

Every time there is a major disease outbreak, one of the first questions scientists and the public ask is: “Where did this come from?”

In order to predict and prevent future pandemics like COVID-19, researchers need to find the origin of the viruses that cause them. This is not a trivial task. The origin of HIV was not clear until 20 years after it spread around the world. Scientists still don’t know the origin of Ebola, even though it has caused periodic epidemics since the 1970s.

As an expert in viral ecology, I am often asked how scientists trace the origins of a virus. In my work, I have found many new viruses and some well-known pathogens that infect wild plants without causing any disease. Plant, animal or human, the methods are largely the same. Tracking down the origins of a virus involves a combination of extensive fieldwork, thorough lab testing and quite a bit of luck.

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