Antibody tests in Washington state indicate the coronavirus was in the U.S. much earlier than thought

The first confirmed case of the coronavirus in the Unites States was a man who lived north of Seattle in Washington state. He had been traveling in Wuhan and returned to the Unites States on January 15th. At the time, he didn’t feel sick or have any symptoms but a few days later he developed a cough. His case was confirmed on January 21. But today the Seattle Times reports that investigation has uncovered two cases of people where sick weeks earlier who have since tested positive for coronavirus antibodies:

She came down with a bug two days after Christmas, and for the next week or so, Jean, a 64-year-old retired nurse, suffered through a series of worsening symptoms: a dry, hacking cough, a fever and body aches, and finally, a wheeze that rattled her lungs…

Months later, after the novel coronavirus pandemic had exploded across Western Washington, the nation and into American consciousness, Jean and dozens of others like her, have wondered if their early winter colds really were undiagnosed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. But her case didn’t seem to fit the profile. She hadn’t traveled abroad, and the official timeline was off: The first known patient infected by COVID-19  — a Snohomish County man who’d recently traveled to China — wasn’t even confirmed until more than three weeks after she became ill…

But after Jean received word from her doctor earlier this month that a highly touted serology test found a sample of her blood positive for antibodies to COVID-19, she’s now convinced the official timeline is wrong — and public health officials say she may be right.

A second case like Jean’s has also been identified but no details about it have been released. All that is known is that the second individual has tested positive for antibodies (presumably using samples collected months ago) and was sick with corona-like symptoms in December. The Seattle Times doesn’t offer a lot of detail about the samples that were tested and I suppose it’s always possible there could be some kind of lab contamination or false positive test. But there has been an increasing amount of evidence that the virus was here and spreading around the world earlier than previously thought.

Researchers in France recently found a COVID-19 case dating to Dec. 27 — nearly a month before that nation’s first previously confirmed case on Jan. 24. A genetic study published by researchers in Britain this month also found evidence to support “extensive worldwide transmission of COVID-19” likely infecting people in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere weeks or possibly months before some of the first reported cases in January and February.

The first U.S. death from the virus was believed to be a man who died in Washington state on February 29. However, last month Santa Clara County announced it had identified two earlier deaths from the virus. The first of those was on February 6. Patricia Dowd was 57 years old and had not traveled abroad in the few weeks before her death, indicating the virus was spread to her from some other source in Santa Clara.

The emerging picture is that the virus may have been introduced into the U.S. multiple times in places like San Francisco, Seattle and New York where there is heavy international travel. The virus was spreading in these locations throughout January, but because we had no testing in place we really had no idea how widespread it was.

If the CDC hadn’t botched the initial test it created in January, we might have had a better idea what was happening. Alternatively, if China hadn’t clamped down on information but hesitated to clamp down on travel, the virus wouldn’t have been able to seed U.S. travel hubs for several weeks. Trump’s travel restriction at the end of January helped slow the spread, but if these new cases from Washington state are confirmed they prove the virus was here long before that.