Since it was revealed in early October, details about President Trump’s COVID-19 infection have been in short supply, including the likely source of his exposure and when he was tested.
New research from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle gives a glimpse into the spread of the disease among America’s first family and White House staff and guests.
Two journalists who directly interacted with White House officials at the end of September — but were not in each other’s company — contracted variations of the virus that were “highly genetically similar.” The genetic code from the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, that infected the journalists contained five unique mutations and were distinct from the genomes of more than 160,000 publicly available virus sequences.
Our research group at @fredhutch, @UWMedicine and @BrotmanBaty has sequenced the viral genomes of two SARS-CoV-2 infections that were connected to the White House #COVID19 outbreak. The @nytimes reports here: https://t.co/k54FDzVag9. 1/16
— Trevor Bedford (@trvrb) November 1, 2020
The scientists said this particular lineage of the virus was first documented in the U.S. in April or May, but its exact spread from there was unclear.
Shortly after Trump was infected, Anthony S. Fauci — the nation’s top infectious-disease expert — said that the White House had been the site of a so-called super spreader event when it hosted a Rose Garden reception for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, now a member of the U.S. Supreme Court. Photos show that many in attendance did not wear masks. At least 50 COVID-19 cases have been connected to an outbreak associated with the White House, according to the researchers.
Trump Administration officials at the time of the outbreak made little effort to do contact tracing to potentially help contain the spread — a decision that drew criticism from some health experts.
When it comes to the source of the White House infections, “it’s sort of an unknowable question, where it entered the environment,” said White House deputy press secretary Brian Morgenstern, in a press conference on Oct. 7.
The Fred Hutch-led research calls that assertion into question. While it’s too late to use the information to limit spread from the initial event, genomic sequencing could provide additional insights into the path of transmission if more samples were tested. It could also help build a more complete picture of the outbreak’s spread by analyzing infections that occur weeks or months following the White House event.
“We’ve seen repeatedly with COVID-19 that the absence of scientific statements provides shelter for speculation and even conspiracy theories to grow. My strategy since January has been to try to address these issues as directly and transparently as I can,” said Trevor Bedford, the study’s lead.
That includes debunking unfounded theories about COVID spreading in California in the fall of 2019, or being created in a lab.
“I still believe that science plays a role in dampening speculation and getting society to a firmer, shared factual footing,” Bedford said.
The new investigation was shared Sunday as a pre-print of non peer-reviewed research, posted on medRxiv. The site, pronounced “med-archive” is a free platform that in recent months has featured up-to-the-minute research during the COVID pandemic.
The study’s researchers include scientists from the University of Washington, Seattle’s Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Seattle.
Bedford and his team have done similar lineage analysis for public health departments in Washington, Florida, California, Utah, Minnesota and Michigan, as well as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and Public Health England.
A story in the New York Times on Sunday shared the source of the two samples as being Times reporters. One had traveled with the president and other staff on Air Force One on Sept. 26, coming in close proximity with Trump, who was not wearing a mask. On the same day, a second journalist covered the Rose Garden event as well as a news conference the next day, with exposure to unmasked officials who later tested positive.
Both journalists, who wore masks, opted to share their identities, according to the Times.
The researchers ended the study pre-print with a slightly exasperated call to action on the U.S. COVID response.
“Science has made a great many discoveries and innovations since [the 1918 influenza pandemic], with genome sequencing being a fairly recent addition to the toolkit to combat infectious disease,” they wrote. “We, as a society, have the tools to control COVID-19, they just have to be employed.”