University of Arizona researchers trace origins of COVID

Updated: Mar. 25, 2021 at 10:24 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - University of Arizona researchers are looking into the origins of COVID and tracing how and when the first case spread to create the pandemic we know today. Research has found the virus was likely circulating in China for months before it was identified.

“Starting with one, and that one might infect two, and those two might infect another couple and then eventually it explodes,” said Michael Worobey, the University of Arizona Department Head of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and lead researcher for the study.

Worobey said COVID dies out before ever developing into a pandemic in most of their simulations. The research found the average failed epidemic ended just eight days after the first case.

“About 70 percent of the time, even with a highly transmissible virus like this, the epidemic actually goes extinct before it infects more than a handful of people,” he said.

Researchers believe the virus began spreading in China between mid-October and mid-November of 2019 with as few as ten people being infected. Then the tables turned in December.

“What we think happened is it caught some lucky breaks as far as super spreader events and one of those may have been the seafood market that people may have heard of, the Wuhan Seafood Market,” he said.

Meaning the Chinese markets likely were not the virus’ starting point. In mid-January the first case was identified in the U.S.

“One of the students in my department, a graduate student from China, had actually been on the same plane as that first patient and so he had been contacted by local health authorities,” Worobey said.

A major challenge in slowing the pandemic is the asymptomatic characteristic of the virus that allowed it to spread like wildfire early on. Worobey says contact tracing has been very beneficial in preventing even worse outcomes.

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