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IN APRIL 2015, researchers in Brazil reported the first case of Zika virus—finally putting a name to the mysterious rash, fever, and joint pain-causing illness that had been swarming the northeast corner of the country. By the time the World Health Organization declared Zika a global health emergency nearly a year later, the outbreak had spread to 26 countries and territories in the Americas, infecting hundreds of thousands of people and leaving many babies with an incurable developmental defect called microcephaly.

Since then, researchers have been racing to develop treatments and vaccines, the first of which entered mid-stage human trials at the end of March. But according to new genetic evidence published today, public health efforts to contain and fight the disease could have—and should have—gotten underway much sooner.

Zika, it turns out, had established itself in Brazil as early as 2013.

The revelation comes from the same group of seasoned virus sleuths who used genetics to help stop Ebola’s spread through Sierra Leone in 2014. This time, they sequenced more than 100 new Zika genomes, taken from patients and mosquitoes throughout the Americas. They traced the virus’s spread from Brazil to the nations next door, into the Caribbean and then the US. The reconstructed genetic history, published in three separate Nature papers, could help drug developers look for a cure, and public health officials develop containment strategies. But mostly, they make a strong case for developing a genetics-based global surveillance system so that the next outbreak—whether it’s Zika or something else—doesn’t shake the world quite so hard.

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Image: By Beth.herlin – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46867814

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