What if COVID actually arrived in the US far earlier than we currently think?
The timeline of the arrival of COVID-19 in the United States is a murky piece of history, but recent investigations and revelations could be a crucial piece in the pandemic puzzle.
According to the current historical overview, the virus was originally reported as a group of cases on December 31, 2019 in Wuhan, China. A case was recorded in Thailand two weeks later. A week later, on or around January 20, 2020 (records from various official sources differ slightly on the exact day), the first case in the United States was confirmed.
Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a study earlier this month that revealed the results of an examination of thousands of donated blood samples collected by the Red Cross between December 13, 2019 and January 19, 2020 .
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The CDC's conclusion suggests that our current schedule may not be as accurate.
In this file photo dated December 8, 2020, a healthcare worker wears personal protective equipment while speaking to a patient at a mobile testing site for COVID-19 in Auburn, Maine. (AP Photo / Robert F. Bukaty, File)
Of the more than 7,300 blood donation samples tested by the CDC, 106 samples showed evidence of coronavirus antibodies. Of these 106, a group of 84 samples, which were subjected to further testing, possessed the specific protein structure required to prevent SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, from entering cells.
Dr. Natalie Thornburg, a respiratory virus immunologist and one of the researchers involved in the study, told AccuWeather that while they cannot be 100% certain that all antibodies are a result of SARS-CoV-2, they are based on their extensive testing of the Fall is "very likely."
"In this original manuscript, we found one that had a very, very, very high signal and was preventing the piece of protein from the virus from binding to the cellular protein in a very high percentage. It also blocked the virus from entering the cells, so that you are very likely to have a SARS-2 infection, "Thornburg said, referring to one of the antibodies in the sample. "I think there was another one that was also positive, which is probably also likely. But even with the 84 we can't say with 100% certainty that they are all from SARS-2 infections."
Despite the lack of certainty, the overwhelming evidence led the researchers to conclude that their data actually "suggests that SARS-CoV-2 may have been introduced in the US before January 19, 2020".
This 2020 electron microscope image, provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows the spherical particles of the new blue colored coronavirus from the first U.S. case of COVID-19. Antibody blood tests for the coronavirus could play a key role in determining whether millions of Americans can get back to work and school safely. However, public health officials warn that the current "wild west" of unregulated testing is creating confusion that could ultimately slow the path to recovery. (Hannah A. Bullock, Azaibi Tamin / CDC via AP)
The results were both surprising and unsurprising, Thornburg said. While she said the detection of positive antibodies wasn't shocking, the number of blood samples with such antibodies and the areas they came from came as a surprise.
The blood samples were from donors in nine states: California, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin. From these states, Thornburg was particularly surprised by the Northern California cluster.
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"I was surprised by the number from Northern California in December. I think it was 2.6% from Northern California in December," Thornburg said. “That doesn't mean 2.6% of California people had the infection. This is not a representative sample, and you can't extrapolate some of the specimens we saw to the general population, but I was off that number surprised, "she said. "And I was surprised by the number we saw in the neutralization, the 84th."
Thornburg said the positive results weren't surprising as the positive infections were confirmed in January when officials began their search. The turning point between the start of CDC testing on Jan. 18 and the first patients identified days later shows the virus had established a prevalence in the country by that time, she said.
A health worker is organizing coronavirus antibody test results in an office in Bali, Indonesia on Friday, September 11, 2020. (AP Photo / Firdia Lisnawati)
If that first confirmed infection had really been the first American patient on January 20, "It would have been like finding a needle in a haystack," she said.
The recently released data gives epidemiologists more potential clarity, but it also raises a number of other questions: Why didn't we see the high transmission rates in December and January that we saw later in March and April?
Hong Kong University professor of pathology John Nicholls posed this question in an email to AccuWeather and suggested that further analysis of these Red Cross blood donors should be performed to better understand the results.
"CDC is usually very robust in its methodology, but from a clinical standpoint, if the virus was previously circulating, given what we know about the infectivity of the virus, why did these mysterious patients show no clinical symptoms or transmitted to other people or to further outbreaks lead? ”asked Nicholls in his email.
This Sunday, January 26, 2020, Gao Fu, foreground left, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks to journalists about a virus outbreak at the State Council Information Office in Beijing after a press conference with journalists. On December 31, 2019, Gao sent a team of experts to Wuhan. Also on December 31, the World Health Organization learned of the cases from an open source platform searching for information about outbreaks, said emergency chief Michael Ryan. (AP Photo / Mark Schiefelbein)
Dr. George Rutherford, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California at San Francisco, asked similar questions in an exclusive interview with AccuWeather. Regarding the results of the study, he said he viewed the data as "laboratory artifact" and it was hard to believe that the results of studies push the timeline back too far.
"I think I could give you in early January or maybe late December, but we would have seen many, many, many diseases and many mortality rates that would not have escaped detection," he said.
If Rutherford had the opportunity to learn more about the dates of the release, he would love to learn more about the donors' travel histories and geographic information.
"It would be very compelling if it turned out to be a series of positive cases of 35-year-old Asian-American businesspeople walking back and forth from China all the time," said Rutherford. "Then it'll be a believable story. But if it's an 80-year-old grandmother who lives in Des Moines, Iowa and has no contact at all, it's a much more difficult sale."
On this file photo dated February 29, 2020, President Donald Trump, accompanied by Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Vice President Mike Pence, and Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, respond to a question during a coronavirus press conference in the White House press conference room in Washington. Public health officials warned Americans of the need to prepare for the coronavirus threat back in early February when President Donald Trump described it as "deadly stuff" in a private conversation that has only now come to light. (AP Photo / Andrew Harnik, File)
Dr. Bryan Lewis of the University of Virginia's Biocomplexity Institute told AccuWeather that he believed the CDC results paint a grimmer picture of the pandemic than what is officially known. "What we are seeing now is a huge underestimation of the total number of people we have lost," said Lewis, who warned early on that the coronavirus could have far-reaching dire consequences. "I think the effects of that haven't been fully appreciated."
Regarding the transmission or absence of these coronavirus patients in early December, Thornburg said it was not entirely clear why there were no higher transmission rates. She postulated that the infected individuals may not have attended super-spreader events or have had close contact with a large crowd of people, but without further information about the patients, this remains unclear.
With vaccines now spread across the country, more than 18 million cases and nearly 320,000 deaths later, Thornburg hopes her team's discoveries will spur other researchers to reanalyze their samples to continue putting together a schedule that will recreate the entire nation will shape understanding of how the pandemic has developed.
"It's part of the puzzle," said Thornburg. "I hope that when other scientists have things in their freezer to look at and have other points of view, I hope that they can go into their freezers and look at samples to see if they have other parts of the Having puzzles can somehow fill the picture. "
Additional coverage from Bill Wadell.
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