Research Article

The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in Europe and North America

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Science  30 Oct 2020:
Vol. 370, Issue 6516, pp. 564-570
DOI: 10.1126/science.abc8169

A series of unfortunate events

The history of how severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) spread around the planet has been far from clear. Several narratives have been propagated by social media and, in some cases, national policies were forged in response. Now that many thousands of virus sequences are available, two studies analyzed some of the key early events in the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Bedford et al. found that the virus arrived in Washington state in late January or early February. The viral genome from the first case detected had mutations similar to those found in Chinese samples and rapidly spread and dominated subsequent undetected community transmission. The other viruses detected had origins in Europe. Worobey et al. found that early introductions into Germany and the west coast of the United States were extinguished by vigorous public health efforts, but these successes were largely unrecognized. Unfortunately, several major travel events occurred in February, including repatriations from China, with lax public health follow-up. Serial, independent introductions triggered the major outbreaks in the United States and Europe that still hold us in the grip of control measures.

Science, this issue p. 571, p. 564


Accurate understanding of the global spread of emerging viruses is critical for public health responses and for anticipating and preventing future outbreaks. Here we elucidate when, where, and how the earliest sustained severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) transmission networks became established in Europe and North America. Our results suggest that rapid early interventions successfully prevented early introductions of the virus from taking hold in Germany and the United States. Other, later introductions of the virus from China to both Italy and Washington state, United States, founded the earliest sustained European and North America transmission networks. Our analyses demonstrate the effectiveness of public health measures in preventing onward transmission and show that intensive testing and contact tracing could have prevented SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks from becoming established in these regions.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution license, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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