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How COVID-19 Took Hold in North America and Europe

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SARS-CoV-2 Tracking
Caption: SARS-CoV-2 introductions to U.S. and Europe. Credit: Modified from Worobey M, Science, 2020.

It was nearly 10 months ago on January 15 that a traveler returned home to the Seattle area after visiting family in Wuhan, China. A few days later, he started feeling poorly and became the first laboratory-confirmed case of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the United States. The rest is history.

However, new evidence published in the journal Science suggests that this first COVID-19 case on the West Coast didn’t snowball into the current epidemic. Instead, while public health officials in Washington state worked tirelessly and ultimately succeeded in containing its sustained transmission, the novel coronavirus slipped in via another individual about two weeks later, around the beginning of February.

COVID-19 is caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Last winter, researchers sequenced the genetic material from the SARS-CoV-2 that was isolated from the returned Seattle traveler. While contact tracing didn’t identify any spread of this particular virus, dubbed WA1, questions arose when a genetically similar virus known as WA2 turned up in Washington state. Not long after, WA2-like viruses then appeared in California; British Columbia, Canada; and eventually 3,000 miles away in Connecticut. By mid-March, this WA2 cluster accounted for the vast majority—85 percent—of the cases in Washington state.

But was it possible that the WA2 cluster is a direct descendent of WA1? Did WA1 cause an unnoticed chain of transmission over several weeks, making the Seattle the epicenter of the outbreak in North America?

To answer those questions and others from around the globe, Michael Worobey, University of Arizona, Tucson, and his colleagues drew on multiple sources of information. These included data peretaining to viral genomes, airline passenger flow, and disease incidence in China’s Hubei Province and other places that likely would have influenced the probability that infected travelers were moving the virus around the globe. Based on all the evidence, the researchers simulated the outbreak more than 1,000 times on a computer over a two-month period, beginning on January 15 and assuming the epidemic started with WA1. And, not once did any of their simulated outbreaks match up to the actual genome data.

Those findings suggest to the researchers that the idea WA1 is responsible for all that came later is exceedingly unlikely. The evidence and simulations also appear to rule out the notion that the earliest cases in Washington state entered the United States by way of Canada. A deep dive into the data suggests a more likely scenario is that the outbreak was set off by one or more introductions of genetically similar viruses from China to the West Coast. Though we still don’t know exactly where, the Seattle area is the most likely site given the large number of WA2-like viruses sampled there.

Worobey’s team conducted a second analysis of the outbreak in Europe, and those simulations paint a similar picture to the one in the United States. The researchers conclude that the first known case of COVID-19 in Europe, arriving in Germany on January 20, led to a relatively small number of cases before being stamped out by aggressive testing and contact tracing efforts. That small, early outbreak probably didn’t spark the later one in Northern Italy, which eventually spread to the United States.

Their findings also show that the chain of transmission from China to Italy to New York City sparked outbreaks on the East Coast slightly later in February than those that spread from China directly to Washington state. It confirms that the Seattle outbreak was indeed the first, predating others on the East Coast and in California.

The findings in this report are yet another reminder of the value of integrating genome surveillance together with other sources of data when it comes to understanding, tracking, and containing the spread of COVID-19. They also show that swift and decisive public health measures to contain the virus worked when SARS-CoV-2 first entered the United States and Europe, and can now serve as models of containment.

Since the suffering and death from this pandemic continues in the United States, this historical reconstruction from early in 2020 is one more reminder that all of us have the opportunity and the responsibility to try to limit further spread. Wear your mask when you are outside the home; maintain physical distancing; wash your hands frequently; and don’t congregate indoors, where the risks are greatest. These lessons will enable us to better anticipate, prevent, and respond to additional outbreaks of COVID-19 or any other novel viruses that may arise in the future.


[1] The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in Europe and North America. Worobey M, Pekar J, Larsen BB, Nelson MI, Hill V, Joy JB, Rambaut A, Suchard MA, Wertheim JO, Lemey P. Science. 2020 Sep 10:eabc8169 [Epub ahead of print]


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Michael Worobey (University of Arizona, Tucson)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Fogarty International Center; National Library of Medicine

Genes, Blood Type Tied to Risk of Severe COVID-19

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SARS-CoV-2 virus particles
Caption: Micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles isolated from a patient.
Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

Many people who contract COVID-19 have only a mild illness, or sometimes no symptoms at all. But others develop respiratory failure that requires oxygen support or even a ventilator to help them recover [1]. It’s clear that this happens more often in men than in women, as well as in people who are older or who have chronic health conditions. But why does respiratory failure also sometimes occur in people who are young and seemingly healthy?

A new study suggests that part of the answer to this question may be found in the genes that each one of us carries [2]. While more research is needed to pinpoint the precise underlying genes and mechanisms responsible, a recent genome-wide association (GWAS) study, just published in the New England Journal of Medicine, finds that gene variants in two regions of the human genome are associated with severe COVID-19 and correspondingly carry a greater risk of COVID-19-related death.

The two stretches of DNA implicated as harboring risks for severe COVID-19 are known to carry some intriguing genes, including one that determines blood type and others that play various roles in the immune system. In fact, the findings suggest that people with blood type A face a 50 percent greater risk of needing oxygen support or a ventilator should they become infected with the novel coronavirus. In contrast, people with blood type O appear to have about a 50 percent reduced risk of severe COVID-19.

These new findings—the first to identify statistically significant susceptibility genes for the severity of COVID-19—come from a large research effort led by Andre Franke, a scientist at Christian-Albrecht-University, Kiel, Germany, along with Tom Karlsen, Oslo University Hospital Rikshospitalet, Norway. Their study included 1,980 people undergoing treatment for severe COVID-19 and respiratory failure at seven medical centers in Italy and Spain.

In search of gene variants that might play a role in the severe illness, the team analyzed patient genome data for more than 8.5 million so-called single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs. The vast majority of these single “letter” nucleotide substitutions found all across the genome are of no health significance, but they can help to pinpoint the locations of gene variants that turn up more often in association with particular traits or conditions—in this case, COVID-19-related respiratory failure. To find them, the researchers compared SNPs in people with severe COVID-19 to those in more than 1,200 healthy blood donors from the same population groups.

The analysis identified two places that turned up significantly more often in the individuals with severe COVID-19 than in the healthy folks. One of them is found on chromosome 3 and covers a cluster of six genes with potentially relevant functions. For instance, this portion of the genome encodes a transporter protein known to interact with angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), the surface receptor that allows the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, to bind to and infect human cells. It also encodes a collection of chemokine receptors, which play a role in the immune response in the airways of our lungs.

The other association signal popped up on chromosome 9, right over the area of the genome that determines blood type. Whether you are classified as an A, B, AB, or O blood type, depends on how your genes instruct your blood cells to produce (or not produce) a certain set of proteins. The researchers did find evidence suggesting a relationship between blood type and COVID-19 risk. They noted that this area also includes a genetic variant associated with increased levels of interleukin-6, which plays a role in inflammation and may have implications for COVID-19 as well.

These findings, completed in two months under very difficult clinical conditions, clearly warrant further study to understand the implications more fully. Indeed, Franke, Karlsen, and many of their colleagues are part of the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative, an ongoing international collaborative effort to learn the genetic determinants of COVID-19 susceptibility, severity, and outcomes. Some NIH research groups are taking part in the initiative, and they recently launched a study to look for informative gene variants in 5,000 COVID-19 patients in the United States and Canada.

The hope is that these and other findings yet to come will point the way to a more thorough understanding of the biology of COVID-19. They also suggest that a genetic test and a person’s blood type might provide useful tools for identifying those who may be at greater risk of serious illness.


[1] Characteristics of and important lessons from the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak in China: Summary of a report of 72 314 cases from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Wu Z, McGoogan JM, et. al. 2020 Feb 24. [published online ahead of print]

[2] Genomewide association study of severe Covid-19 with respiratory failure. Ellinghaus D, Degenhardt F, et. a. NEJM. June 17, 2020.


The COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative

Andre Franke (Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel, Germany)

Tom Karlsen (Oslo University Hospital Rikshospitalet, Norway)

First NIH-CIHR Symposium

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Cross-Border Symposium
On November 22, 2019, I participated in a joint symposium involving NIH and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Held at NIH’s Lawton Chiles International House, this gathering of senior NIH and CIHR leadership marked the first symposium between these analogous governmental organizations. Topics included: cross-border training, international collaboration, global health, artificial intelligence, and implementation science. In this photo showing some of the meeting attendees, I’m standing next to CIHR president Michael Strong. The day-long symposium was co-hosted by NIH’s Fogarty International Center and CIHR. Credit: NIH

Creative Minds: Harnessing Technologies to Study Air Pollution’s Health Risks

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Perry Hystad

Perry Hystad
Credit: Hannah O’Leary, Oregon State University

After college, Perry Hystad took a trip to India and, while touring several large cities, noticed the vast clouds of exhaust from vehicles, smoke from factories, and soot from biomass-burning cook stoves. As he watched the rapid urban expansion all around him, Hystad remembers thinking: What effect does breathing such pollution day in and day out have upon these people’s health?

This question stuck with Hystad, and he soon developed a profound interest in environmental health. In 2013, Hystad completed his Ph.D. in his native Canada, studying the environmental risk factors for lung cancer [1, 2, 3]. Now, with the support of an NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, Hystad has launched his own lab at Oregon State University, Corvallis, to investigate further the health impacts of air pollution, which one recent analysis indicates may contribute to as many as several million deaths worldwide each year [4].