White House coronavirus strain: Genome sequencing traces its roots

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Scientists have sequenced the genome of a coronavirus strain that likely infected President Trump and dozens of his advisers and others with whom he came into contact. 

It comes after the White House deemed the source of President Trump’s infection ‘unknowable,’ and refused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) offer to assist in contact tracing related to the outbreak. 

Two New York Times journalists who had been in close proximity to Trump and later tested positive for COVID-19 claim that they most likely caught the virus as a result of the White House outbreak. 

And they were less convinced that the origins of the virus they caught were untraceable, and enlisted the help of geneticists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center to attempt to find out the lineage of the virus they caught, according to the Times.

The strains detected in the two reporters – who say they had had no contact with one another during the period when they would have been infected – were very similar, and unique for Americans, according to a preprint of the research that was posted to medRxiv, but has not yet been peer reviewed. 

After President Trump and dozens of people connected to the White Hous tested positive for coronavirus, administration officials said the source of the virus was ‘unknowable’ – but a new study that detected nearly identical strains in two White House journalists – including one who covered the ‘superspreader’ event held for Amy Coney Barrett (pictured) – suggests otherwise (file)

‘These mutations that are possessed by these viruses are quite rare in the United States,’ lead study author Dr Trevor Bedford told the Times. 

‘I am highly convinced that these viruses come from the same outbreak or cluster based on their genomes.’ 

And if sequencing the strains of virus that infected the two journalists connected their cases, it’s likely that doing the same for samples taken from White House staff and their contacts could help scientists work out how many infections were a result of the outbreak there and perhaps even from where the virus was introduced. 

The journalists were infected with a strain of the virus that had the traits of two parent-strains, so to speak. 

In part, the genetic material of the viral strains matched the most common one in the US, a dominant form thought to be more infectious than others. 

That strain could have come from anywhere. 

But the sequencing revealed mutations that belong to a different family of the virus. 

The offshoot strain has been detected in the US, Canada and New Zealand. 

‘We find that WH1 and WH2’ – the names they gave the virus samples from each of the journalists – ‘are descended from viruses sampled from the USA (Connecticut, Florida, New York, Texas, Washington), Canada and New Zealand in March and April 2020,’ the study authors wrote. 

They noted that the journalists’ viral samples had six other mutations, and judged that strains these two people caught had a ‘sister’ strain found in Virginia in August, which likely split off from a common ancestor in May. 

Viruses mutate constantly – many change much more quickly than SARS-CoV-2, but it has still developed hundreds if not thousands of unique strains – so the odds that each journalist picked up such a unique variation of coronavirus from distinct sources are low. 

Nonetheless, Dr Bradford told the Times that it’s possible that strain was circulating in the Washington, DC, area, where the journalists might have picked it up separately.   

Still, the findings of his study of the two journalists suggest that much could have still been learned about the coronavirus strain involved in the White House outbreak when the White House said it was unknowable.

The journalists had already tested positive for coronavirus after attending ‘after attending event(s) associated with the White House COVID-19 outbreak,’ according to the study. 

According to the Times, one of the journalists was reportedly on Air Force One with the president, who came within six feet or less of him without a mask, while the other was covering the event held in honor of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, which Dr Anthony Fauci has called a ‘superpsreader event.’ 

Each wore a mask, although not everyone around them did. 

‘Given that the individuals in question did not have any direct contact with one another and both attested exposure at events associated with the White House COVID-19 outbreak, we believe that a shared epidemiological connection through the White House COVID-19 outbreak is the most parsimonious explanation for their infections’ genetic similarity,’ the study authors wrote. 

‘This would imply that the WH lineage identified here was responsible for other infections in the White House cohort as well.’ 

And that implication could be proven – or disproven – by sequencing the genomes of samples of virus taken from others infected in the White House outbreak.  

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