President Trump’s illness from a coronavirus infection last month was the most significant health crisis for a sitting president in nearly 40 years. Yet little remains known about how the virus arrived at the White House and how it spread.
The administration did not take basic steps to track the outbreak, limiting contact tracing, keeping cases a secret and cutting out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The origin of the infections, a spokesman said, was “unknowable.”
But one standard public health technique may still shed some light: tracking the cluster’s genetic fingerprints.
To better understand the outbreak, The Times worked with prominent geneticists to determine the genetic sequence of viruses that infected two Times journalists believed to been exposed to the coronavirus as part of their work covering the White House.
The study reveals, for the first time, the genetic sequence of the virus that may have infected President Trump and dozens of others, researchers said. That genome is a crucial clue that may allow researchers to identify where the outbreak originated and whether it went on to infect others across the country.
The White House has not disclosed any effort to conduct similar genetic testing, but the study’s results show that it is still possible, even weeks after positive tests. Additional sequencing could help establish the path of the virus through the White House, the role of a possible super-spreading event for Judge Amy Coney Barrett and the origin of an outbreak among the staff of Vice President Mike Pence in the last week or so.
The journalists, Michael D. Shear and Al Drago, both had significant, separate exposure to White House officials in late September, several days before they developed symptoms. They did not spend any time near each other in the weeks before their positive tests.
Mr. Shear traveled with Mr. Trump and other staff on Air Force One on Sept. 26, when Mr. Trump approached within five or six feet without a mask. Mr. Drago covered the Judge Barrett event that day and a news conference the next day near officials who were not wearing masks and later tested positive.
The viral genomes of the two journalists shared the same distinct pattern of mutations, the research found. Along with their exposure history, the findings suggest that they were infected as part of the broader White House outbreak, said Trevor Bedford, a geneticist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington who led the research team.
“These mutations that are possessed by these viruses are quite rare in the United States,” Dr. Bedford said. “I am highly convinced that these viruses come from the same outbreak or cluster based on their genomes.”
The study, which has been posted online but not yet peer reviewed or published in a science journal, followed academic protocols that require genetic samples to be anonymous. Mr. Shear and Mr. Drago chose to disclose their identities for this article.
Viruses constantly mutate, picking up tiny, accidental alterations