Virus Hunters Map How COVID-19 Variants Travel

We studied COVID-19 with our Pandemic Defense Coalition partner in Senegal to see how it evolved.

Diagnostics Testing|Aug.05, 2022

As we travel, we change. We try new things; we meet new people.

Viruses aren’t so different.

COVID-19 moved from country to country like a globetrotter, reaching new places and “meeting” new people. All this movement can produce a variant, which is a version of a virus that has accumulated a unique set of mutations.

In a study in Virus Evolution, our Pandemic Defense Coalition partner Institut de Recherche en Santé, de Surveillance Epidémiologique et de Formation (IRESSEF) and Abbott’s Virus Hunters looked at lineages of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in Senegal over six months, combining data regarding the virus’s makeup and spread to better understand what factors influence how the virus moves and evolves over time.

“By looking back at how the pandemic developed in Senegal, we learned that this kind of research is a great opportunity for scientists to do a deep dive into why certain virus strains infect more people than others,” said Dr. Mary Rodgers, principal research scientist at Abbott. “We know viruses change over time, and this highly detailed research helps us begin to pull back the curtain on what changes — and movements — public health professionals should be on the lookout for as we continue to fight COVID-19.”

The Virus Hunters
The Virus Hunters

Retracing the Path of a Virus

Here’s what we saw. For most of 2020, a variant called B.1.416 (which, for this story, we’ll call the Senegal/Gambian variant after its origin) circulated and dominated as the main strain in Senegal. It’s likely that the variant was a descendant from one of the initial cases of COVID-19 in the country, based on its mutations. This strain also traveled in and out of Africa, making its way to Europe, North America, Australia, and Asia.

Fast forward to 2021, and a variant called B.1.1.420 (which, for this story, we’ll call the Western Europe/U.S. variant after its origin) gained strength and speed and replaced the Senegal/Gambian variant in the country. While the rest of the world was combatting another strain of COVID-19 in early 2021, the Western Europe/U.S. variant kept its hold in Senegal, shutting out other variants, due to its unique makeup. With greater transmissibility, it traveled far and wide.

To better visualize these changes, Dr. Gregory Orf, senior scientist at Abbott, created a new mapping app, similar to a flight traffic map, to visualize COVID-19’s movement.

“By retracing the path of SARS-CoV-2 variants over time, we can understand how far and fast variants can travel and the mutations that help viruses spread more effectively,” he said. “That’s important because this information helps scientists know what to look for moving forward — what mutation combinations could form into variants of concern.” 

The Research Journey Continues On

All Abbott Pandemic Defense Coalition partners are dedicated to preventing the next pandemic. Similar to how you’d refer to travel guides and recommendations from seasoned travelers before journeying to a new place, Virus Hunters from around the world look at virus variants of the past and present to inform the future.

We know there are more than 200 virus species that can infect humans. Partnerships like our Pandemic Defense Coalition give the world a much-needed opportunity to actively work toward preventing the next outbreak by identifying viruses of concern, sharing information and creating diagnostic tools.

As we continue to fight COVID-19, it’s important to study emerging variants and other viruses that can infect humans. Viruses travel at a rapid pace, and that’s why Virus Hunters, like our Coalition partners, are key players in preventing future outbreaks.

The time is now to search for the next unexpected destination — or, in this case, the next pandemic threat. We’ll learn from viruses’ movements and changes in the past and present to better anticipate any future trips on COVID’s bucket list.

As viruses travel and change, they evolve. We’re evolving too and ready to try new things to help more people.

We really aren’t so different.