Skip to Main Content
Contribute Try STAT+ Today

The coronavirus outbreak in the Seattle area is at a critical juncture and could see explosive growth in cases much like Wuhan, China, if public officials don’t take immediate, forceful measures, according to a new analysis of genetic data.

The author of the analysis, a computational biologist named Trevor Bedford, said there are likely already at least 500 to 600 cases of Covid-19 in the greater Seattle area. He urged health authorities and the public to immediately begin adopting non-pharmaceutical interventions — imposing “social distancing” measures, telling the sick to isolate themselves, and limiting attendance at large gatherings.

“Now would be the time to act,” Bedford, who is at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, told STAT.

advertisement

Support STAT: If you value our coronavirus coverage, please consider making a one-time contribution to support our journalism. You can help us continue to produce authoritative pieces from the frontiers of health and medicine.

The genetic sequences of patients in the Seattle-King County region suggest the virus has been circulating there since about mid-January, when the first U.S. patient — a man who returned from Wuhan — was diagnosed, Bedford wrote in the analysis, published online.

The spread of the virus has gone undetected in part because many infected people experience only mild infections that could be confused for a cold or the flu, and in part because of stumbles in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s effort to develop test kits for state and local public health laboratories, which has meant very little testing has been done in the country until the past few days.

advertisement

On Capitol Hill, Washington Sen. Patty Murray (D) expressed deep frustration with the situation.“The failure to develop and distribute working test kits to public health agencies has really cost us valuable time. I am hearing from people personally across our state who are frustrated,” Murray said.

“They believe they have been exposed, they are sick, they want to get tested, they have nowhere to go,” she added. “People want to be safe and protected, they do not want to spread this, they want to take care of themselves but we don’t have the capability right now to do it with the policies we have in place.”

Bedford said Seattle faces a stark choice — take aggressive actions to slow down the spread of the new coronavirus now or face the type of outbreak that engulfed Wuhan’s health facilities and led to a lockdown of the city that remains in place six weeks later.

Seattle is effectively in the position that Wuhan was on Jan. 1, when it first recognized it had an outbreak of a new virus, but did not realize the scale of the problem or the speed at which the virus was spreading, Bedford said.

WHO graphic - Wuhan and China
The majority of coronavirus cases in China were reported in Wuhan, in Hubei province. STAT; World Health Organization

Three weeks later, on Jan. 21, China imposed the most draconian quarantine measures ever deployed in modern times, both in that city and in others to which the virus had spread but where transmission was only just beginning.

“January 1 in Wuhan was March 1 in Seattle,” Bedford told STAT. “Now would be the time to start these interventions rather than waiting three weeks.”

Samuel Scarpino, an assistant professor at Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute, agreed time is of the essence.

“I think it’s unequivocal that there is widespread community transmission in Seattle and they have to take decisive action now,” said Scarpino, who uses mathematical and computational models of infectious diseases transmission to inform public health policy.

Washington State health authorities announced late Friday that they have found a case of Covid-19 in a teenager from Snohomish County, north of Seattle. The teen had not traveled outside the country and had no known contact with a confirmed Covid-19 patient, meaning this was likely a case of community transmission of the virus. This was the first such case for Washington State and one of the first four or five detected in the country.

The case was actually found by the Seattle Flu Study. Bedford, a co-investigator, normally works on influenza but has been one of the key players trying to assess what is happening with the new virus by studying genetic sequences from around the world.

Frustrated by the lack of testing resulting from the problem with the CDC-developed kit, the Seattle Flu Study began using an in-house developed test to look for Covid-19 in samples from people who had flu-like symptoms but who had tested negative for flu. That work — permissible because it was research — uncovered the Snohomish County teenager.

Analysis of the genetic sequence of the virus from the teenager showed it was so closely related to that of Washington State’s first case that Bedford believes the teen was infected as part of a chain of transmission that started with the first case. That would mean the virus has been circulating in the northern part of the state for about six weeks.

The pattern seen in other locations that are fighting the new virus is that it takes a while for enough people to be infected for severe cases to start showing up in hospitals for care. The Seattle area is soon going to be there, Bedford said.

“So we’re going to expect a large uptick in just the number of people presenting to hospitals,” he said.

As of Tuesday, the state was reporting 27 cases and nine deaths. That is up from 18 cases and six deaths on Monday.

The stringent actions China took drove down new infections in Hubei province — where Wuhan is located — to low levels, though transmission continues there. Other cities in the country that started to see cases were able, with the same measures, to avoid the explosive transmission Wuhan had experienced. Flattening the epidemic curve, as that phenomenon is called, helps health care systems continue to function. An eruption of cases overtaxes hospitals, leading to deaths that otherwise could have been avoided.

“China saw not much of an epidemic outside of Hubei because they acted early,” Bedford said.

Some question Bedford’s analysis. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said it is possible that another traveler who came from Wuhan later started the chain that infected the Snohomish County teen.

While Scarpino agreed that is a possibility, he insisted that from a public health point of view, it makes little difference.

The window of opportunity “may be already shut. But we have to assume we’ve got some time left,” Scarpino said. “But that means, like yesterday, we have to start seriously testing, putting infection control policies in place, ensuring we have plans for what we’re going to do with homeless or marginalized populations.”

Scarpino urged hospitals in the Seattle area to assume anyone coming in with acute respiratory infections is infected with Covid-19 and isolate them to protect other patients and health workers.

Andrew Joseph and Nicholas Florko contributed reporting.
An earlier version of this story misstated which research group had discovered Washington State’s first community spread case.

  • Maya, this virus has only been in the human population for 3 months and it’s killed nearly 90,000 people. It’s just getting started. It’s not the end of the world just a serious public health threat. Nobody has any immunity to it and there is no vaccine. Yes, most people who get it aren’t seriously affected but people 70+ years old with underlying health conditions are a serious risk. If any of your friends or family are in that category you should be concerned. Nobody is saying that we should panic.

  • Aussie: Chew on this: when the Spanish Flu did its thing in 1918, the world population was 1.8 billion and 50 million died. Today, we have 7.8 billion people and only 3800 people died. Go catch the short bus ‘Tard, I am done with you.

    • Your need to troll with your ego and insult is a clear demonstration of mental illness. It’s not the way you’re meant to treat people.

      It was already mentioned before, 3.4% is the death rate of coronavirus(atm), Spanish flu at 2–3%

      Oh, wait, I’m wrong again ain’t I? I’m always wrong ain’t I? If your saying yes and are compelled to agree you should google bi-polar and seek help for it, you’ll get meds and treat people in the world like a normal people do, and those ups and downs in your life will become smooth and enjoy life for the first time

    • And where is your empathy in guiding someone to seek help when they need it?
      Choosing to insult one by claiming a lack of empathy and bury the head in the sand I feel is worse. Where is the lack of empathy, when I’m the only one trying to help guide someone that has a mental illness?

      Read the older posts, and that is the definition of someone suffering from mental illness and not one person here tried to help guide him that he needs help is shameful.

  • Helen, thanks for publicizing this important research. Unfortunately, the Seattle area is playing catch-up to a growing infection that doubles every six days. Luckily we have civic and corporate leaders who take it seriously and lots of great researchers in the area.
    Unfortunately, our national leadership squandered the time that they had to prepare our nation as a whole. South Korea has tested over 100,000 of their 60,000,000 citizens for the virus. We have 350,000,000 million and we have tested 1,200. All of the Trumpian happy talk and his troll army will not stop this virus. It’s coming soon to a town near you… be ready.

    • You must be the life of the party!

      It’s coming?! Really? Ok! The worldwide percentage of death is only 0.00004xxx, four thousandths of a percent. Run for the hills, grab scissors while you’re at it!!

  • This, from the March issue of Newsmax Magazine by Bill Hoffman: There is a “Strategic National Stockpile[which] includes antibiotics, medical supplies, antidotes, antitoxins, antivirals, vaccines, and other pharmaceuticals that are located throughout the United States…as the nation’s largest supply of potentially life-saving…supplies for use in a public health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to run out.”

  • If the Coronavirus has accomplished one thing, it is enabling one to watch all others panic and obsess over nothing more than a flu. To date, the percentage of world wide deaths from this #MANUFACTUREDDRAMA is 0.00004xxx or 4 one-thousandths of a 1 percent.

    #MUCHADOABOUTNOTHING
    #PEOPLEDIEEVERYDAY
    #ENOUGHALREADY

    • 20% of cases are serious(out of that 20%, 5 % are critical), it will take nothing for a country to run out of hospital beds. What will the death rate be then?

    • Hanging Chad – Oh the horrors! Clearly you do not know math; my numbers are the worldwide percentage of deaths — again, not even a full percent! If we used WA state’s numbers; say against the U.S. population, the numbers are still small.

      Go ahead and run with scissors with your panic. This is nothing but a flu — seriously, figure out how many people died on 3/4/2020 from a heart attack.

      #PARANOIATHEDESTROYER

    • @Maya
      Since your a proclaimed expert, you should show you info to WHO. Tell them how it should be done. Tell them their focus should only need to worry about the current percentage of deaths instead of the potential of deaths that would happen.

      WHO already announced a few days ago the death rate at 3.4%. And then the info I have above highlights(20% serious, 5 % are critical) why the reason there bending over backward to curb it. The fewer lives are lost and the more its stopped in its track is really the only humane thing the world can do to preserve life as it is then to try and undermine that

    • Aussie: the number you are quoting is not the percentage of deaths (against the ww population). Period.

      Here take the numbers:

      WW Population = 7.8 Billion
      Deaths = 3,385

      Have fun!

    • The number you’re quoting is irrelevant, the percentage of deaths from coronavirus divided into the whole world, its why no one in the world will be interested in what you’re saying. You should troll somewhere else.

  • Donate if you want to your journalism! Ur info no better than i see through news outlets for free!
    Make a buck on same journalism anyone can do. (broad infectious disease person). You’ll probably make good money off donations but ur full of shit if ur asking for donations during this time. Ur Pathetic Branswell

  • Is there a reason that outbreaks peak and then dissolve? What is happening to bring the infection back down to manageable? What is making those ‘peaks’?

  • I have not read anything about spread constraints in and around Seattle – is this again / also driven by setting economy, trade, etc above human health? If it is proven succesful in China to stringently restrict inter-human contact, and Italy and other countries also lock down concentration areas – then why does this not happen in the US? Is it so cocky that it thinks it is stronger than this virus??

  • You can’t say this is ” in part because many infected people experience only mild infections that could be confused for a cold or the flu”. We literally had people die of the corona virus without even testing them, so please revise paragraph 5 to “The CDC being based in Atlanta needs a complete overhaul as they failed to develop test kits for the most well known and threatening vector, failing the prime directive of the CDC completely and killed many Americans. Those in charge of the CDC will be put on trial in the near future for criminal neglect.”. There fixed for ya.

Comments are closed.