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New coronavirus revelation changes what we know about the outbreak’s origins

Published May 7th, 2020 12:48PM EDT
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  • A recent study that analyzed thousands of genetic sequences of the novel coronavirus concluded the pathogen may have jumped from animals to humans as early as October 2019.
  • One report says the first COVID-19 case in China may have been discovered as early as November 17th.
  • Separate discoveries from Italy, France, and the US all suggest COVID-19 was spreading weeks or even months earlier than was initially believed.
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A peer-reviewed study looking at the genetics of the novel coronavirus published earlier this week said the virus has been spreading worldwide since late December, which would be much earlier than initially believed. However, the virus hasn’t circulated long enough to infect a significant amount of the population, which would get communities closer to acquiring herd immunity. The concept refers to having enough people in a community develop immunity to a pathogen via infection or vaccine so that outbreaks aren’t possible.

The study supports separate discoveries that say COVID-19 was spreading in several countries in Europe and in the US well before the first official cases were documented. More interestingly, it offers a timeframe for the virus’s jump to humans, saying SARS-CoV-2 could have infected the first people as early as October 2019.

“Phylogenetic estimates support that the COVID-2 pandemic started sometime around October 6th, 2019–December 11th, 2019, which corresponds to the time of the host-jump into humans,” reads one of the highlights of the study that was published in the Infection, Genetics and Evolution journal.

A report from the South China Morning Post on the study says government data indicates that says China’s first confirmed COVID-19 case traced back to November 17th.

China has been reluctant to share precise details about the first COVID-19 cases in the region of Wuhan, where the pandemic started. Moreover, China has repeatedly been accused of lying when reporting COVID-19 case and fatality figures. Unsurprisingly, this fueled a series of conspiracy theories that claimed the virus was created in a laboratory, or that it escaped the Wuhan facility that could bioengineer such viruses. The scientific community already proved the virus wasn’t made in a lab, a fact backed up by top US intelligence agencies as well as infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci. The theory that the virus could have escaped from a lab makes little sense. If anyone was studying this virus from any sort of animal, it means the virus was already capable of infecting humans.

We may never find out who Patient Zero was in China, or in other regions. But it’s increasingly clear that the virus started infecting human hosts much earlier than we thought.

Before this new genetic study came out, researchers from Italy and France found evidence that local epidemics started before the first cases were officially registered in the country. French doctors were able to prove that a patient who went to an emergency room with flu-like symptoms on December 27th had the novel virus. That would indicate the virus was in circulation in France already in mid-December, although it’s unclear where it came from. That patient had no history of traveling to China. France didn’t its first COVID-19-positive patients until January 27th.

Italian researchers said their first local COVID-19 cases are likely to have appeared as early as January, or maybe even earlier than that. Italy reported its first local cases on February 21st, three weeks after two Chinese tourists in Rome tested positive for COVID-19. Doctors in the US said the first people died from COVID-19 complications as early as February 6th, more than three weeks before the first COVID-19 confirmed death was registered in Kirkland, Washington.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.