Deepening the mystery around the timeline and origin of the novel coronavirus outbreak, a new study published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal indicates that the people in at least five states in the US were infected with the virus weeks before the states reported their first cases.
The findings are a result of scientific analysis of blood samples collected as part of a research program being run by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The study found that at least seven people from the states like Massachusetts, Mississippi, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were infected with the SARS-CoV-2 days or even weeks before the first cases were reported in their area. Some even experienced mild symptoms.
This large new government study offers insights into the hitherto unseen ground reality of the weeks leading up to the outbreak of the deadly pandemic in the country, placing the presence of the virus in the US as early as December 2019.
Antibodies Point to Early Infections
As part of the NIH, 24,000 samples were collected between January 2 and March 18, 2020. Out of these, at least 7 samples that came from Massachusetts, Mississippi, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were found to have antibodies against the novel coronavirus.
This has led scientists to believe that these people had contracted the virus several weeks before the cases began being reported in their respective states, as the antibodies don’t appear until two weeks after the infection at the very least.
Of these seven samples that tested positive for antibodies, three were from Illinois and one each from the remaining four states. The samples from Illinois were collected on January 7, and the state reported its first confirmed COVID-19 case on January 24.
However, at least three people in the state already had antibodies against the novel coronavirus well before that. Ergo, they were exposed to the virus sometime in December 2109. Likewise, the samples from Massachusetts were collected on January 8, and the first case in the state was confirmed on February 1.
Study Could Alter the Coronavirus Outbreak Trajectory
The data collected as part of the NIH ‘All of Us’ program indicates that the virus existed in the U.S far away from what were initially believed to be the hotspots and entry points of SARS-CoV-2 into the country. In early 2020, health officials in the US focused on people with a travel history to Wuhan in China as being the first to experience COVID-19 symptoms. For instance, the first confirmed case in the US, reported on January 21, 2020, was a Washington resident who had recently returned from Wuhan.
These new findings have turned that premise on its head. Infectious diseases and ophthalmology director at GlobalData, Michael Breen, confirmed that the recent data indicates that more widespread and rapid testing during the initial stages of the outbreak could have facilitated a more well-rounded perspective on the extent of the coronavirus spread, and consequently, resulted in a more proportionate response.
The co-author of the study claimed that it would allow for a better insight into the beginning of the pandemic in the US. These recent findings are also aligned with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, which also hinted at the possibility that the virus had been in the US well before the first case was diagnosed.
The emerging new data could prove to be significant not only in understanding the true trajectory of the COVID-19 outbreak in the US, which is one of the countries hardest hit by the novel coronavirus, but also establish the need for early testing as soon as epidemics break for better handling of such situations in the future.