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Timing the SARS-CoV-2 index case in Hubei province

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Science  23 Apr 2021:
Vol. 372, Issue 6540, pp. 412-417
DOI: 10.1126/science.abf8003

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Backtracking a pandemic

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) may have had a history of abortive human infections before a variant established a productive enough infection to create a transmission chain with pandemic potential. Therefore, the Wuhan cluster of infections identified in late December of 2019 may not have represented the initiating event. Pekar et al. used genome data collected from the early cases of the COVID-19 pandemic combined with molecular clock inference and epidemiological simulation to estimate when the most successful variant gained a foothold in humans. This analysis pushes human-to-human transmission back to mid-October to mid-November of 2019 in Hubei Province, China, with a likely short interval before epidemic transmission was initiated.

Science, this issue p. 412

Abstract

Understanding when severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) emerged is critical to evaluating our current approach to monitoring novel zoonotic pathogens and understanding the failure of early containment and mitigation efforts for COVID-19. We used a coalescent framework to combine retrospective molecular clock inference with forward epidemiological simulations to determine how long SARS-CoV-2 could have circulated before the time of the most recent common ancestor of all sequenced SARS-CoV-2 genomes. Our results define the period between mid-October and mid-November 2019 as the plausible interval when the first case of SARS-CoV-2 emerged in Hubei province, China. By characterizing the likely dynamics of the virus before it was discovered, we show that more than two-thirds of SARS-CoV-2–like zoonotic events would be self-limited, dying out without igniting a pandemic. Our findings highlight the shortcomings of zoonosis surveillance approaches for detecting highly contagious pathogens with moderate mortality rates.

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