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

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Science  18 Mar 2021:
eabf8003
DOI: 10.1126/science.abf8003

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Abstract

Understanding when 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 employed a coalescent framework to combine retrospective molecular clock inference with forward epidemiological simulations to determine how long SARS-CoV-2 could have circulated prior to the time of the most recent common ancestor. 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. By characterizing the likely dynamics of the virus before it was discovered, we show that over 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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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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