Coronavirus research: First cases in October? 200 different mutations? Vaccine proving difficult?

Breaking down some recent studies centered around COVID-19

Coronavirus testing tubes (AP)

DETROIT – There are countless studies into the coronavirus (COVID-19) going on around the world, and three that recently caught our eye involve when the spread of the virus first began, hundreds of mutations helping COVID-19 evolve and a development that could make a vaccine very difficult to create.

Research into COVID-19 is evolving by the day, and Local 4′s Dr. Frank McGeorge is constantly reviewing new studies that shape our understanding of the virus.

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He recently came across three new studies that are offering more insight into how long the coronavirus might have been spreading and how it could be mutating.

Coronavirus timeline

Two weeks ago, there was a report from California that found the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a woman who had died Feb. 6, meaning the coronavirus was likely spreading in the United States by at least mid-January -- much earlier than anyone anticipated.

France has since found evidence of the virus spreading even earlier.

Researchers from a hospital near Paris looked back at people hospitalized in December 2019 and early January. They were searching for patients who had symptoms and CAT scan findings consistent with COVID-19. Back then, nobody had any test for the coronavirus and they didn’t believe it had spread beyond China.

French researchers identified a 42-year-old man who had findings consistent with COVID-19. He was admitted Dec. 27 after four days of symptoms. The frozen samples taken at the time were retested, and they were positive for SARS-CoV-2.

Officials said the man had no history of travel, which suggests SARS-CoV-2 was in the Paris area at least four days before the first announcement of the virus in Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31.

Figuring out when the spread of the coronavirus began is important because it changes many of the assumptions that went into the models being used to predict the future spread of COVID-19. It would also help researchers fully understand what happened and try to be better prepared for something similar in the future.


On the topic of how long SARS-CoV-2 might have been around, a new study from the United Kingdom took a look at natural mutations of the virus. The study found COVID-19 might have been circulating as early as October 2019, although that timeframe is based on modeling estimates and only provides a hint of when the virus entered circulation, not proof.

The paper also identified nearly 200 recurrent mutations that the researchers believe are helping the virus evolve and adapt to infecting humans.

Vaccine difficulty?

Another study has been widely reported but is not yet peer reviewed. It’s still very preliminary.

The paper suggests mutations in the spike protein -- which is critical for the virus to invade human cells -- might be making COVID-19 more infectious and could lead to difficulty in creating a vaccine.

The conclusions are food for thought, but they’re based on mathematical assumptions, so it would be premature to overreact now.

About the Authors

Dr. McGeorge can be seen on Local 4 News helping Metro Detroiters with health concerns when he isn't helping save lives in the emergency room at Henry Ford Hospital.

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.

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