New research indicates that the coronavirus was circulating in the New York area by mid-February. This period is weeks before the first case. Even the travelers brought in the virus mainly from Europe, not Asia.
“The majority is European,” tells Harm van Bakel, a geneticist at Icahn School of Medicine. He is the co-writer of a study awaiting peer review.
Another team at NYU Grossman School of Medicine comes to strikingly similar conclusions. It is despite studying a different group of cases. Both teams examine genomes from coronaviruses from New Yorkers starting in mid-March.
Heguy and van Bakel belongs to an international society of viral historians. They ferret out the history of outbreaks by poring covering clues. Embedding in the genetic material of viruses obtained from thousands of patients.
Viruses penetrate a cell and take over its molecular machinery, causing it to make new viruses.
The process is swift and sloppy. As a result, new viruses can obtain a new mutation that wasn’t present in their ancestor. If a new virus succeeds to escape its host and infect other people, its descendants will acquire that mutation.
Tracking viral mutations needs sequencing all the genetic material in a virus — its genome.
Complex computer programs can figure out how all of those mutations arise as viruses descend from a common ancestor. If they get enough data, they can make rough estimations about how long ago those ancestors lives. That’s because mutations arise at a roughly consistent pace, like a molecular clock.
Maciej Boni of Penn State University and his associates use this method to see where the coronavirus comes from in the first place. While conspiracy theories are false, the virus’s genome makes clear that it arises from bats.
There are several kinds of coronaviruses, which infect both humans and animals. Boni and his associates find that the genome of the new virus includes some mutations in common with strains of coronaviruses that infect bats.
The closest coronavirus is in a Chinese horseshoe bat, the researchers tell. But the new virus gains some unique mutations since splitting off from that bat virus decades ago.
Boni states that ancestral virus probably gives rise to some strains that infect horseshoe bats and perhaps sometimes other animals.
“Very likely there’s a vast unsampled diversity,” he adds.
Copying mistakes aren’t the only method for new viruses to arise. Sometimes two kinds of coronaviruses will infect the identical cell. Their genetic material gets tangled up in new viruses.
It’s entirely possible, Boni states. In the past 10 or 20 years, a cross virus arises in some bat that was well-suited to infect humans, too. Later, that virus somehow manages to cross the species barrier.
“Once in a while, one of these viruses wins the lottery,” he tells.
Testing Programs in New York
In January, as the scope of the catastrophe in China clears. Some countries were on with an aggressive testing program. They were able to track the approach of the virus on their territory and trace its spread through their populations.
But in New York, United States mishandles the situation by limiting testing only to people who have travel history from China.
“It was a disaster that we didn’t do testing,” Heguy states.
The Washington viruses also experience other mutations in common with ones isolated in Wuhan. That suggests that the virus was from China.
With that discovery, Bedford and his associates took the lead in sequencing coronavirus genomes. Sequencing more genomes around Washington gave them a more favorable view of how the outbreak starts.
“I’m quite confident that it was not spreading in December in the United States and New York,” Bedford states. “There may have been a couple of other introductions in January that didn’t take off in the same way.”