How Long Has CV-19 Been Around?

By December 1, 2020Commentary

A new study sponsored by the CDC looked at the presence of antibodies to CV-19 in blood donor samples from late 2019 and early 2020.  (CDC Paper)   the researchers looked at samples collected from December 13, 2019, through January 17, 2020, in nine states.  The first identified case in the US was January 19.  The authors found a fairly high percent of the samples, 106 out of 7389, or 1.4%, had such antibodies and there was at least one positive in each of the nine states, which were geographically scattered and included Iowa and Wisconsin.  Almost all the samples actually showed neutralizing antibodies.  Cross-reactivity from seasonal coronavirus infections seems an unlikely explanation, given the confirmatory testing that was done, but if there was extensive cross-reactivity, it would suggest that a large portion of the population may have had pre-existing protection, which could affect the course of the epidemic. Blood donors aren’t a representative sample of the population, obviously tending to be healthier, younger and with more contacts, although many of these donors were middle-aged, so this may overstate the presence in the entire population, but it is still a lot of infections.  If confirmed, this clearly indicates that not only was CV-19 in the US by December at the latest, and almost certainly earlier, but it was somewhat widespread.  This is not surprising in light of recent studies concluding that the virus was in China and Europe as soon as early fall.

The implications are fascinating.  Somehow CV-19 may have been in as much as 1% of the population and we didn’t notice it clinically.  There was no big uptick in influenza-like cases, no surge of hospitalizations or LTC deaths.  I have speculated on the course of the epidemic as far back as the spring.  As I hypothesized then, it is possible that early spread occurred largely among the young and healthy, who were traveling a lot and had a lot of contacts, but didn’t get seriously ill, maybe thought they had a cold.  Then it gradually spread to those who had contacts with nursing home residents and the elderly in late February and March and we began to see more severe disease and deaths.  I don’t know how else to account for the fact that the virus may have been causing a large number of unnoticeable infections.  And instead of front-loading, makes it seem like there is mid-loading in a wave.  In other words, the early part of a surge is among high-contact individuals, who definitely tend to be younger and healthier; then it moves to the vulnerable populations and creates substantial damage in that relatively small proportion of the overall population, while continuing to spread among other groups, but transmission has naturally slowed, and we see the sharp declines.  The wave duration in pretty interesting and looks a lot like an unmitigated epidemic curve, not a lot of evidence of flattening or truncation, although I suspect the height is lower.  Coupled with the revelations that China definitely hid both what was happening and the extent of the epidemic, we can assume that there is more to learn about the exact case shape and geographic spread.

Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • Suzanne says:

    One question I’ve had for awhile is, do undetected early COVID-19 infections have anything to do with the early, unusual influenza B season we had in ~Nov.-Dec. 2019? I assume that they tested some of those patients and found influenza B, which is why they were able to say it was an early prevalence of that strain, but I also suspect that they don’t test everyone with an influenza-like illness to determine the exact virus causing the illness. It might also be the case that they test those people, rule out influenza A and the most common influenza B strains, then stop looking for the exact virus due to time/money/etc. constraints. If they weren’t testing, or not thoroughly testing, it seems possible that there were early, bad cases of COVID-19, not just mild or asymptomatic ones. Does anyone know what standard medical practice was for patients with flu-like symptoms in 2019?

    Kevin, thanks for covering all the interesting research as it gets published (or placed on a pre-print server)!

  • Chuck says:

    Dr Osterholm, Com Malcom, et’al are not stupid. They certainly knew this months ago. Why didn’t they come out and provide this data and science? Instead of the nagging, finger wagging and doom-gloom? If massive testing now is finding 5-10 thousand “cases” per day, what could the case levels have been last winter before the March lockdown, July mask mandate, current school, restaurant & gym closures?

  • Colonel Travis says:

    My wife has never had an antibody test but swears she had it in January. She has asthma and one particular day had breathing issues to the point where I said – we need to go to the emergency room. They tested her for flu, took chest X-rays for pneumonia, she had neither. She’d also lost her sense of taste. She didn’t need to stay at the hospital fortunately. Doctors had no idea what was going on, gave her something I can’t remember, she just had to ride it out. I had an antibody in the early summer and it came up negative for me. Who knows.

  • James Zuck says:

    We were going to have a Thanksgiving gathering and the week before Thanksgiving my wife came down with a mild cold and we decided for her to get a Covid-19 test, she took 2 tests one being the quick one (within 30 minute results) and the other the longer one. Both came back positive, so with hindsight being 20/20 I realized I had a mild cold about 7 days before she showed symptoms so I suspect I was the carrier. I am getting a antibody test tomorrow to help confirm this. We are both 67 and had very mild symptoms, I would of never thought Covid-19. I think it was mentioned on this sight the 90/10 rule the virus follows – 90% very mild symptoms with 10% becoming vey sick. I expect there are lots of people who have had the same experience as my wife and myself. I am sure before it was identified and before all the fuss Covid-19 was spreading.
    Kevin thank you for the time you put in to this site to keep others informed – I have learned so much.

  • Christopher B says:

    According to some information I’ve seen, it would appear that Germany and Austria caught COVID during this stage ..

    “In contrast, Austria and Germany’s superspreaders were a bunch of 20-somethings at ski parties in the Alps. The Austrians and Germans not only had a bit more warning than the Italians and Spaniards, but their epidemics were also among young millennials – a group that COVID doesn’t impact that harshly. The Austrians and Germans locked down their elderly populations, ran a rigorous testing and tracing program, and more or less nipped the problem in the bud.”

    (this was written in June so know we know that last line was mostly wishful thinking)

  • Mike M. says:

    But a study of life insurance applicants showed only around 1% with antibodies in May, except for in the NE, where it was 5-10%, with something like 18% in New York.

    The recent CDC study showed most states under 5% at the end of July.

    Maybe there was a strain circulating that did not produce the dysfunctional immune response that puts people in the hospital. Then it mutated in fal 2019l.

  • Dan says:

    A friend of mine just said he and his wife tested positive on the saliva test. He said it felt like a mild cold also. He lives in a small town but still has no idea where he got it. So much for contract tracing.

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