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Was COVID-19 Around in '19?

Some people have been speculating that COVID-19 was around last year. They or someone they know had a bad cold last fall, and they wonder if it was the coronavirus.

I've doubted this from the beginning. First, people get bad colds and the flu every year. Assuming your bad cold last year was the coronavirus is like doubting your new mailman is really new because you've gotten mail before. Second, state governments and the CDC are buggo on keeping track of the flu. They issue detailed weekly flu reports and the CDC performs genetic testing on samples. It seems unlikely they'd have missed a novel virus. Third, surely someone in the federal government checked to see whether this virus had already been circulating for months before shutting down the economy.

A couple of studies should put lingering doubts to rest. Trevor Bedford, a professor in the departments of genome sciences and epidemiology at the University of Washington, says, "We tested 3600 samples [from the Seattle Flu Study] collected in January 2020 for COVID-19 status and found zero positives. We tested 3308 samples collected in February 2020 and found a first positive on February 21 with a total of 10 samples testing positive in February....Seasonal coronaviruses are responsible for ~30% of of common colds and are easily distinguished from [COVID-19] in molecular assays. There is no chance of confusion between these in our assays."

A different study, this one from Stanford University, looked at 2888 samples collected between January 1, 2020 and February 26, 2020. They found only two samples that tested positive for COVID-19: one from February 21 and another from February 23.

Then there's Iceland, which has tested 10% of its population and found less than 1% have the virus.

You probably don't have COVID-19 antibodies. If you're in a high-risk category, you need to be careful even if you had a bad cold last year.


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