A new study suggests that the COVID-19 epidemic in the United States started after the China travel ban President Donald Trump imposed on Jan. 31.
Researchers looked at viral genomes in an effort to get a clear picture of how the coronavirus traveled from China to the rest of the world and how it spread within the United States. The findings show that different forms of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, already were circulating early in the year, and that the first cases in the United States — which occurred in Washington — were not related to the outbreak that later cropped up.
“Our results refute prior findings erroneously linking cases in January 2020 with outbreaks that occurred weeks later. Instead, rapid interventions successfully prevented onward transmission of those early cases in Germany and Washington State,” the study’s abstract reads.
“Other, later introductions of the virus from China to both Italy and Washington State founded the earliest sustained European and U.S. transmission networks. Our analyses reveal an extended period of missed opportunity when intensive testing and contact tracing could have prevented SARS-CoV-2 from becoming established in the U.S. and Europe.”
The New York Times reported on the study.
The study authors concluded that the U.S. outbreak of the virus could have possibly been controlled had the government acted sooner than the Jan. 31 order, which prevented foreigners from entering the U.S. starting Feb. 2 if they had traveled through China over the previous 14 days. Trump insists that the order saved American lives, while others say that his administration was too slow to act on the virus.
As of Thursday morning, more than 1.7 million Americans have been sickened with COVID-19 and in excess of 102,000 have died.
The analysis mapped out the early cases of the virus in the U.S., explaining that the first documented patient on U.S. soil was a Chinese man who traveled from Wuhan, China — the center of the global pandemic that has killed around 360,000 people. He arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Jan. 15. Local authorities were able to prevent the man from infecting anyone else via contract tracing and containment efforts. From there, however, other strains of the virus began circulating in the U.S. — after the travel ban, the researchers said.
The outbreaks that eventually blossomed into the pandemic, they concluded, were likely linked to travelers who entered the U.S. after the aforementioned ban or who arrived on the continent in Vancouver, Canada, a short drive from Seattle.
“By delaying COVID-19 outbreaks by even a few weeks in the U.S. and Europe, the public health response to the WA1 case [the first case in the U.S.] in Washington State, and a particularly impressive response in Germany to a substantial outbreak, bought crucial time for their own cities, as well as other countries and cities, to prepare for the virus when it finally did arrive,” the researchers wrote.
“Erroneously suggesting that WA1 introduced the earliest U.S. outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 obscured the societal and public health benefits produced by an attentive, collaborative, and thoughtful patient willing to work with public health workers to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2.”