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.