Research is pointing to data that shows that COVID-19 was in the New York area by mid-February. This was weeks before there was a confirmed case. According to geneticists, the origin of the strain of the virus in New York is from Europe, not Asia.
Two independent groups started looking at information gathered from New Yorkers in mid-March and came to the same conclusions. Research geneticists are able to determine where a virus is from because when a virus invades a cell, it takes over the molecular machinery in order to make new viruses. This process is quick and not always neat, which means new viruses can gain a new mutation that wasn’t present in the initial virus. If the new virus infects other people, its descendants will inherit that mutation. Researchers sequence all the genetic material in a virus, or its genome. Once they have the genomes from a number of virus samples, it’s easy to spot the mutations.
The data indicates that the virus being transmitted in New York isn’t the same strain that originated in China since the genome is different from that strain. The issue is that virus wasn’t detected due to the lack of testing. Also, it means that the travel restrictions for European countries, which happened in mid-March, came way too late since the virus was already here and spreading rapidly by the time the measures went into place.
This information comes as the United States surpasses Italy in the total number of deaths. As of today, the US has 20,229 deaths, whereas, Italy has 19,468 deaths. Currently, the number of deaths is increasing by about 2,000 people a day in the US. The good news for New Yorkers is that, so far, the predicted surge has hospitals hasn’t been seen despite the increases in deaths. A couple of weeks ago, the models had indicated that there was going to be a need of 140,000 hospital beds and almost 40,000 intensive care units with ventilators. However, thanks to the shutdown of schools, business and people staying at home, it seems that the state might be avoiding the worst-case scenario.
Public health officials have been quick to point out that statistical models are often a mix of guesswork and science. In regards to the virus, they been variable in predicting the intensity and spread. The biggest unknown factor was how people were going to react when they were told to stay at home and keep six feet apart from one another whenever they went out. For the most part, New Yorkers have managed to follow the restrictions on movement and socializing, which is what experts are saying has been essential to reducing the spread.