May 27, 2020 - Health

New research suggests coronavirus spread began in U.S. in mid-February

Illustration of a giant virus cell casting a shadow over a tiny Earth.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

New research suggests that the coronavirus outbreak in Washington state was likely started by someone who came to the U.S. in mid-February, not by the first confirmed infection in the country, STAT reports.

Why it matters: The research indicates that the U.S. could have been more successful in mitigating community spread of the virus had it acted sooner.

  • Some scientists had originally thought that the outbreak was tied to the first coronavirus patient in the U.S., who traveled from Wuhan to Washington state on Jan. 15.
  • If that had been the case, there would have been little more that could have been done to stop the spread, especially because public health officials had traced his contacts and quarantined them.
  • The upside of the new research is that these efforts were probably successful.

Yes, but: It also means that there was a weeks-long gap between when the virus was first detected in the U.S. and when it began spreading rampantly — a gap that the U.S. failed to take advantage of.

  • "Our finding ... is sobering, since it demonstrates that the window of opportunity to block sustained transmission of the virus stretched all the way until" mid-February, the authors wrote in the paper, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.

The bottom line: "Everything is sort of lining up in the direction that if we're serious about it, we can control this thing," Samuel Scarpino, an assistant professor at Northeastern University's Network Science Institute, told STAT.

  • "We're just not being serious about it."

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