During the pandemic, it’s been critical to track in real time where the coronavirus is spreading at home and abroad. But it’s often hard for public health officials to know whether changes in the reported number of COVID-19 cases over time truly reflect the spread of the virus or whether they are confounded by changes in testing levels or lags in the reporting of results.
Now, NIH-funded researchers have discovered a clever workaround to detect more accurately where COVID-19 hotspots are emerging. As published in the journal Science, the new approach focuses on the actual amount of virus present in a positive COVID diagnostic test , not just whether the test is positive or negative. What’s even better is these data on a person’s “viral load” are readily available from polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests that are the “gold standard” for detecting SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. In fact, if you’ve been tested for COVID-19, there’s a good chance you’ve had a PCR-based test.
Here’s how a PCR test for COVID-19 works. After a person provides a nasal swab or saliva sample, any genetic material in the sample is extracted and prepared for the PCR machine. It uses special nucleic acid primers that, if any genetic material from SARS-CoV-2 is present, will make millions more copies of them and result in a positive test result. PCR is an enzymatic reaction that works by running many cycles of heating and cooling; each cycle results in doubling of the genetic material present in the original sample.
But it turns out that PCR can go beyond a simple “yes” or “no” test result. It’s also possible to get some sense of how much coronavirus is present in a positive sample based on the number of cycles required to make enough copies of its genetic material to get the “yes” result. This measure is known as the “cycle threshold,” or Ct, value.
When a sample is run with lots of virus in it, the PCR machine doesn’t need to make so many cycles to reach detectable levels—and the Ct value is considered low. But, when the virus is barely present in a sample, the machine needs to run more cycles before it will reach the threshold for detection. In this case, the Ct value is high. This makes the Ct metric a bit counterintuitive: low Ct means a high level of infection, and high Ct means a low level of infection.
In the new study, researchers in Michael Mina’s lab, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, including James Hay and Lee Kennedy-Shaffer, wanted to use Ct values to understand better the overall trajectory of the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Their idea was a little out of the box, since Ct values weren’t being factored into a diagnostic testing process that was set up to give people a yes-or-no answer about COVID-19 status. In fact, Ct values were often discarded.
The team members had a hunch that the amount of virus in patient samples would vary based on whether an outbreak is increasing or declining. Their reasoning was that during an outbreak, when SARS-CoV-2 is spreading rapidly through a community, a larger proportion of infected individuals will have recently contracted the virus than when it is spreading more slowly. The researchers also knew that the virus reaches its peak level in humans soon after infection (generally a couple of days before symptoms begin), and then falls to very low but still detectable levels over the course of weeks or sometimes even months. So, when viral load within samples is highest—and Ct values are lowest—it suggests an outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 is underway. As an outbreak slows and cases fall, viral loads should fall and Ct values rise.
The researchers found that just 30 positive PCR test results on a single day were enough to give an accurate real-time estimate of the growth rate of SARS-CoV-2 infections based on Ct values. With Ct values from multiple time points, it was possible to reconstruct the epidemic curve and estimate the true number of people infected. They found that even Ct values collected from a single location at a single point in time could provide extremely valuable information about the growth or decline of an outbreak.
The findings suggest that these data can now be captured and put to good use as a key metric for decision-making and gauging the success of the pandemic response going forward. It’s also important to note that the value of these data are not unique to COVID-19 and the ongoing pandemic. It appears this can be extremely useful new way to monitor the course of other viral outbreaks, now and in the future, in a way that’s less susceptible to the vagaries of testing. The hope is that this will mean even greater success in capturing viral outbreaks and mobilizing resources in real time to the places where they are most needed.
The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has already claimed the lives of more than 230,000 Americans, the population of a mid-sized U.S. city. As we look ahead to winter and the coming flu season, the question weighing on the minds of most folks is: Can we pull together to contain the spread of this virus and limit its growing death toll?
I believe that we can, but only if each of us gets fully engaged with the public health recommendations. We need all Americans to do the right thing and wear a mask in public to protect themselves and their communities from spreading the virus. Driving home this point is a powerful new study that models just how critical this simple, low-cost step will be this winter and through the course of this pandemic .
Right now, it’s estimated that about half of Americans always wear a mask in public. According to the new study, published in Nature Medicine, if this incomplete rate of mask-wearing continues and social distancing guidelines are not adhered to, the total number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States could soar to more than 1 million by the end of February.
However, the model doesn’t accept that we’ll actually end up at this daunting number. It anticipates that once COVID mortality reaches a daily threshold of 8 deaths per 1 million citizens, U.S. states would re-instate limits on social and economic activity—as much of Europe is now doing. If so, the model predicts that by March, such state-sanctioned measures would cut the projected number of deaths in half to about 510,000—though that would still add another 280,000 lives lost to this devastating virus.
The authors, led by Christopher Murray, Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluations, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, show that we can do better than that. But doing better will require action by all of us. If 95 percent of people in the U.S. began wearing masks in public right now, the death toll would drop by March from the projected 510,000 to about 380,000.
In other words, if most Americans pulled together to do the right thing and wore a mask in public, this simple, selfless act would save more than 130,000 lives in the next few months alone. If mask-wearers increased to just 85 percent, the model predicts it would save about 96,000 lives across the country.
What’s important here aren’t the precise numbers. It’s the realization that, under any scenario, this pandemic is far from over, and, together, we have it within our power to shape what happens next. If more people make the decision to wear masks in public today, it could help to delay—or possibly even prevent—the need for future shutdowns. As such, the widespread use of face coverings has the potential to protect lives while also minimizing further damage to the economy and American livelihoods. It’s a point that NIH’s Anthony Fauci and colleagues presented quite well in a recent commentary in JAMA .
As we anxiously await the approved vaccines for COVID-19 and other advances in its prevention and treatment, the life-saving potential of face coverings simply can’t be overstated. I know that many people are tired of this message, and, unfortunately, mask-wearing has been tangled up in political perspectives at this time of deep divisions in our country.
But think about it in the same way you think about putting on your seat belt—a minor inconvenience that can save lives. I’m careful to wear a mask outside my home every time I’m out and about. But, ultimately, saving lives and livelihoods as we head into these winter months will require a collective effort from all of us.
To do so, each of us needs to follow these three W’s: Wear a mask. Watch your distance (stay 6 feet apart). Wash your hands often.
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.
When it comes to COVID-19, anyone, even without symptoms, can be a “superspreader” capable of unknowingly infecting a large number of people and causing a community outbreak. That’s why it is so important right now to wear masks when out in public and avoid large gatherings, especially those held indoors, where a superspreader can readily infect others with SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19.
Driving home this point is a new NIH-funded study on the effects of just one superspreader event in the Boston area: an international biotech conference held in February, before the public health risks of COVID-19 had been fully realized . Almost a hundred people were infected. But it didn’t end there.
In the study, the researchers sequenced close to 800 viral genomes, including cases from across the first wave of the epidemic in the Boston area. Using the fact that the viral genome changes in very subtle ways over time, they found that SARS-CoV-2 was actually introduced independently to the region more than 80 times, primarily from Europe and other parts of the United States. But the data also suggest that a single superspreading event at the biotech conference led to the infection of almost 20,000 people in the area, not to mention additional COVID-19 cases in other states and around the world.
The findings, posted on medRxiv as a pre-print, come from Bronwyn MacInnis and Pardis Sabeti at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, MA, and their many close colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. The initial focus of MacInnis, Sabeti, and their Broad colleagues has been on developing genome data and tools for surveillance of viruses and other infectious diseases in and viral outbreaks in West Africa, including Lassa fever and Ebola virus disease.
Closer to home, they’d expected to focus their attention on West Nile virus and tick-borne diseases. But, when the COVID-19 outbreak erupted, they were ready to pivot quickly to assist several Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state labs in the northeastern United States to use genomic tools to investigate local outbreaks.
It’s been clear from the beginning of the pandemic that COVID-19 cases often arise in clusters, linked to gatherings in places such as cruise ships, nursing homes, and homeless shelters. But the Broad Institute team and their colleagues realized, it’s difficult to see how extensively a virus spreads from such places into the wider community based on case counts alone.
Contact tracing certainly helps to track community spread of the virus. This surveillance strategy depends on quick, efficient identification of an infected individual. It follows up with the identification of all who’ve recently been in close contact with that person, allowing the contacts to self-quarantine and break the chain of transmission.
But contact tracing has its limitations. It’s not always possible to identify all the people that an infected person has been in recent contact with. Genome data, however, is particularly useful after the fact for connecting those dots to get a big picture view of viral transmission.
Here’s how it works: as SARS-CoV-2 spreads, the virus sometimes picks up a new mutation. Those tiny spelling changes in the viral genome usually have no effect on how the virus causes disease, but they do serve as distinct genomic fingerprints. Using those fingerprints to guide the way, researchers can trace the path the virus took through a community and beyond, identifying connections among cases that would be untrackable otherwise.
With this in mind, MacInnis and Sabeti’s team set out to help Boston’s public health officials understand just how the epidemic escalated so quickly in the Boston area, and just how much the February conference had contributed to community transmission of the virus. They also investigated other case clusters in the area, including within a skilled nursing facility, homeless shelters, and at Massachusetts General Hospital itself, to understand the spread of COVID-19 in these settings.
Based on contact tracing, officials had already connected approximately 90 cases of COVID-19 to the biotech conference, 28 of which were included in the original 772 viral genomes in this dataset. Based on the distinct genomic fingerprint carried by the 28 genomes, the researchers went on to discover that more than one-third of Boston area cases without any known link to the conference could indeed be traced back to the event.
When the researchers considered this proportion to the number of cases recorded in the region during the study, they extrapolated that the superspreader event led to nearly 20,000 cases in the Boston area. In contrast, the genome data show cases linked to another superspreader event that took place within a skilled nursing facility, while devastating to the residents, had much less of an impact on the surrounding community.
The analysis also uncovered some unexpected connections. The dataset showed that SARS-CoV-2 was brought to clients and staff at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program at least seven times. Remarkably, two of those introductions also traced back to the biotech conference. Researchers also found infections in Chelsea, Revere, and Everett, which were some of the hardest hit communities in the Boston area, that were connected to the original superspreading event.
There was some reassuring news about how precautions in hospitals are working. The researchers examined cases that were diagnosed among patients at Massachusetts General Hospital, raising concerns that the virus might have spread from one patient to another within the hospital. But the genome data show that those cases, in fact, weren’t part of the same transmission chain. They may have contracted the virus before they were hospitalized. Or it’s possible that staff may have inadvertently brought the virus into the hospital. But there was no patient-to-patient transmission.
Massachusetts is one of the states in which the COVID-19 pandemic had a particularly severe early impact. As such, these results present broadly applicable lessons for other states and urban areas about how the virus spreads. The findings highlight the value of genomic surveillance, along with standard contact tracing, for better understanding of viral transmission in our communities and improved prevention of future outbreaks.
Contact tracing, a term that’s been in the news lately, is a crucial tool for controlling the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. It depends on quick, efficient identification of an infected individual, followed by identification of all who’ve recently been in close contact with that person so the contacts can self-quarantine to break the chain of transmission.
Properly carried out, contact tracing can be extremely effective. It can also be extremely challenging when battling a stealth virus like SARS-CoV-2, especially when the virus is spreading rapidly.
But there are some innovative ways to enhance contact tracing. In a new study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, researchers in Australia demonstrate one of them: assembling genomic data about the virus to assist contact tracing efforts. This so-called genomic surveillance builds on the idea that when the virus is passed from person to person over a few months, it can acquire random variations in the sequence of its genetic material. These unique variations serve as distinctive genomic “fingerprints.”
When COVID-19 starts circulating in a community, researchers can fingerprint the genomes of SARS-CoV-2 obtained from newly infected people. This timely information helps to tell whether that particular virus has been spreading locally for a while or has just arrived from another part of the world. It can also show where the viral subtype has been spreading through a community or, best of all, when it has stopped circulating.
The recent study was led by Vitali Sintchenko at the University of Sydney. His team worked in parallel with contact tracers at the Ministry of Health in New South Wales (NSW), Australia’s most populous state, to contain the initial SARS-CoV-2 outbreak from late January through March 2020.
The team performed genomic surveillance, using sequencing data obtained within about five days, to understand local transmission patterns. They also wanted to compare what they learned from genomic surveillance to predictions made by a sophisticated computer model of how the virus might spread amongst Australia’s approximately 24 million citizens.
Of the 1,617 known cases in Sydney over the three-month study period, researchers sequenced viral genomes from 209 (13 percent) of them. By comparing those sequences to others circulating overseas, they found a lot of sequence diversity, indicating that the novel coronavirus had been introduced to Sydney many times from many places all over the world.
They then used the sequencing data to better understand how the virus was spreading through the local community. Their analysis found that the 209 cases under study included 27 distinct genomic fingerprints. Based on the close similarity of their genomic fingerprints, a significant share of the COVID-19 cases appeared to have stemmed from the direct spread of the virus among people in specific places or facilities.
What was most striking was that the genomic evidence helped to provide information that contact tracers otherwise would have lacked. For instance, the genomic data allowed the researchers to identify previously unsuspected links between certain cases of COVID-19. It also helped to confirm other links that were otherwise unclear.
All told, researchers used the genomic evidence to cluster almost 40 percent of COVID-19 cases (81 of 209) for which the community-based data alone couldn’t identify a known contact source for the infection. That included 26 cases in which an individual who’d recently arrived in Australia from overseas spread the infection to others who hadn’t traveled. The genomic information also helped to identify likely sources in the community for another 15 locally acquired cases that weren’t known based on community data.
The researchers compared their genome surveillance data to SARS-CoV-2’s expected spread as modeled in a computer simulation based on travel to and from Australia over the time period in question. Because the study involved just 13 percent of all known COVID-19 cases in Sydney between late January through March, it’s not surprising that the genomic data presents an incomplete picture, detecting only a portion of the possible chains of transmission expected in the simulation model.
Nevertheless, the findings demonstrate the value of genomic data for tracking the virus and pinpointing exactly where in the community it is spreading. This can help to fill in important gaps in the community-based data that contact tracers often use. Even more exciting, by combining traditional contact tracing, genomic surveillance, and mathematical modeling with other emerging tools at our disposal, it may be possible to get a clearer picture of the movement of SARS-CoV-2 and put more targeted public health measures in place to slow and eventually stop its deadly spread.