A new study tracks the spread of coronavirus across the world through North America and Europe in unprecedented detail.

The study, published in Science, investigates when, where, and how COVID-19 established itself globally, using airline passenger flow data, disease incidence rates, and genomic sequence data from around the world.

The study suggests that, although some rapid early interventions were successful, there was a missed opportunity for intensive testing and contact tracing that could have prevented COVID-19 from becoming fully established in North America and Europe.

On Jan. 15, a Chinese national flew to Seattle from Wuhan, China and became the first patient in the U.S. infected with the novel coronavirus. It was not until six weeks later that several additional cases were detected in Washington State.

On Jan. 20, a COVID-19 infected employee of an automotive supply company in Bavaria, Germany, returned from a business meeting in Shanghai, China, leading to infections of 16 co-workers.

Contrary to common hypotheses, the study shows that these two cases were in fact not the sources of major outbreaks in North America and Europe due to rapid testing and isolation that prevented an outbreak.

Rather, later introductions of the virus (around Feb. 20-29) from China to both Italy and to Washington State were the main sources of outbreaks in European and North America because these cases were not met with the same level of care.

Intensive interventions – testing, contact tracing, isolation measures, and a high degree of compliance of infected individuals – that occurred in mid-January successfully delayed the virus until late-February. Washington State and Germany bought crucial time for their cities to prepare for the virus when it finally did arrive according to the study.

“We believe that those measures resulted in a situation where the first sparks could successfully be stamped out, preventing further spread into the community,” University of Arizona researcher and study author Michael Worobey, said. “What this tells us is that the measures taken in those cases are highly effective and should serve as a blueprint for future responses to emerging diseases that have the potential to escalate into worldwide pandemics.”

The findings also highlight the potential value of establishing intensive, community-level respiratory virus surveillance architectures, such as the Seattle Flu Study, during a pre-pandemic period. The importance of detecting cases early cannot be overstated – delays in detection reduce the possibility of containment and delays in testing further exacerbate the outbreak.

The study shows that if intensive interventions were put in place in late-February as they did in mid-January, the pandemic could have looked very different in North America and Europe.

Read more about protecting yourself from coronavirus. Check the CDC website for more information on how to protect yourself and check our latest article to learn how COVID-19 differs from the flu.

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