Fred Hutch researchers uncover new genetic details of White House COVID-19 outbreak

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.



a group of people standing in front of a building: Judge Amy Coney Barrett delivers remarks after President Donald Trump announces her nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, Sept. 26, 2020, in the Rose Garden of the White House. The event is believed to be responsible for the spread of COVID-19 among some attendees. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks, Public Domain )


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Judge Amy Coney Barrett delivers remarks after President Donald Trump announces her nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, Sept. 26, 2020, in the Rose Garden of the White House. The event is believed to be responsible for the spread of COVID-19 among some attendees. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks, Public Domain )

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.

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.



chart: Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have created a family tree for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and identified the form associated with the White House outbreak. (Fred Hutch Image)


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Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have created a family tree for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and identified the form associated with the White House

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