As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Americans are wondering if the illnesses they had earlier this year were really the result of the new coronavirus.
The new coronavirus started spreading to New York a few weeks before the first confirmed case and arrived in the region via travelers from Europe, not China, according to new research.
Two separate teams of scientists studying the genetics of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the region came to similar conclusions: people were spreading the virus in New York City in late January, before more widespread testing started, and it came from mainly from Europe not Asia.
“We know for sure that these were from European strains,” Adriana Heguy, director of the Genome Technology Center at NYU Langone Health, told today.
Harm van Bakel, geneticist at the Icahn School of Medicine in Mount Sinai, told the New York Times: “The majority are clearly European.”
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The teams, whose research is still in its infancy, examined the genomes of the virus taken from different groups of patients from mid-March and observed a community spread of the virus before this date.
The first case of new coronavirus confirmed in New York occurred on March 1. More than a month earlier, President Donald Trump had announced that he would increase travel restrictions from China. But it was not until March 11 that Trump said he was restricting travel from Europe.
More than 7,000 people in New York have died from complications from COVID-19, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Thursday. Nearly 150,000 people have confirmed positive tests for the virus, according to the state health department.
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As a researcher, Heguy normally focuses on other diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. She said she was reviewing work done on sequencing the virus from the University of Washington in Seattle when she received a call from her colleague, Matthew Maurano.
“Obviously it’s going to explode and we have no idea where all these strains come from,” said Heguy, she thought one morning. “The same morning, (Maurano) picks up the phone … and he said:‘ Adriana, I think we have to jump on this thing immediately. ‘ “
The first patient in the NYU Langone team studied had no travel history, indicating that they were infected by a member of the community. When Heguy and Maurano compared the genetic data for this patient’s virus to that of others in an international database, it was clear that the strain came from England.
“The fact that our first case was acquired by the community suggested to us that it had been going on for some time and that it just went undetected because no tests had been done before,” said Heguy.
Since then, the team has tested more than 90 samples and counted them in the New York area to better track which strain of the virus the cases in the area are from.
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Heguy and the team identified strains from European countries, including France, Austria and the Netherlands, in two-thirds of the patients for whom they performed genetic sequencing of the virus. Other strains come from countries in Asia and the west coast of the United States, but given the results of research on Mount Sinai, Heguy said it was clear that the New York epidemic was coming from large part of European strains.
The team also shared their data and drew on the results of scientists around the world to determine the origin of the strains via GISAID and Nextstrain, which are building a database and a phylogenetic tree of the virus.
As the coronavirus passes from person to person, it can mutate or slightly modify its genetic information, said Heguy. By following these mutations, scientists are able to locate which region this strain of the virus comes from.
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The Mount Sinai study examined 90 SARS-CoV-2 genomes from 84 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in its New York health care system and found “multiple, independent but isolated introductions primarily from Europe and other parts of the United States from January to early March 2020, “the researchers wrote.
Van Bakel told The Times that his team had identified seven separate lines of the virus circulating in New York.
“We will probably find more,” he added.
Without early testing and then sequencing the virus, however, public health officials were unable to find out where the virus came from and who might be at risk before it reaches its current levels, said Heguy.
“Whenever there were strange cases of pneumonia here in New York, they could have tested earlier and immediately followed up on the contacts,” she said.
Heguy said continuing to collect data and build a larger sample will be the next step in the research. Scientists also hope to understand the clinical implications of different strains of the virus. Sequencing the genetic information of the virus will also help in case a second wave occurs, she said.
“We want to be ready with all the sequences and mutations in terms of when there will be a second wave so that we can actually do the monitoring,” said Heguy.
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