Scientists not involved in the study seriously doubt the findings, which challenge the current consensus on where and when the virus originated.
June 26, 2020
In a study not yet published in a journal, scientists have reported that the new coronavirus was present in wastewater in Barcelona, Spain in March 2019, a finding that, if confirmed, would show that the pathogen had emerged much earlier than previously thought.
But independent experts who reviewed the findings said they doubted the claim. The study was flawed, they said, and other lines of evidence strongly suggest the virus emerged in China late last year.
Up until now, the earliest evidence of the virus anywhere in the world has been from December 2019 in China and it was only known to have hit mainland Spain in February 2020.
“Barcelona is a city that is frequented by Chinese people, in tourism and business, so probably this happened also elsewhere, and probably at the same time,” said the lead author, Albert Bosch, a professor in the Department of Microbiology of the University of Barcelona who has been studying viruses in wastewater for more than 40 years.
Several experts not involved in the research pointed out problems with the new study, which has not yet been subjected to the critical review by outside experts that occurs before publication in a scientific journal. They suggested that the tests might very well have produced false positives because of contamination or improper storage of the samples.
“I don’t trust the results,” said Irene Xagoraraki, an environmental engineer at Michigan State University.
Researchers at the University of Barcelona posted their findings online on June 13. Most of their report described research on wastewater treatments from early 2020. The surprising finding about March 2019 was only mentioned briefly at the end of the report.
The research gained more attention when the university issued a news release on Friday.
For months, scientists have been struggling to assemble clues about the origin of the new coronavirus. The earliest official reports came from the city of Wuhan in China in December 2019.
Researchers have studied the mutations that have arisen in coronavirus samples collected from across the world since then and have estimated on the basis of their findings that the samples shared a common ancestor that dated to late 2019.
More evidence for the origin of the novel coronavirus has come from other viruses that scientists have found in animals. The closest relatives to the coronavirus infect bats in China.
Because the virus can be shed in feces, researchers have begun examining wastewater to detect the pathogen’s genes.
In Europe, Australia and the United States, researchers discovered rising levels of the virus’s genes in wastewater days before confirmed cases began to arise. These discoveries have led a number of researchers to examine frozen wastewater samples from earlier periods, seeking evidence of the virus’s presence before anyone knew to look for it.
Last week, Italian researchers reported finding the virus in Milan and Turin on December 18, two months before northern Italy was besieged by Covid-19 cases.
Separately, in Spain, Dr. Bosch and his colleagues began taking weekly samples of wastewater from two of Barcelona’s treatment plants in April. They found the virus in these samples, prompting them to look back at earlier samples.
The researchers found the virus in a number of samples from early 2020, in the months before the pandemic struck Spain.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
What’s the best material for a mask?
Scientists around the country have tried to identify everyday materials that do a good job of filtering microscopic particles. In recent tests, HEPA furnace filters scored high, as did vacuum cleaner bags, fabric similar to flannel pajamas and those of 600-count pillowcases. Other materials tested included layered coffee filters and scarves and bandannas. These scored lower, but still captured a small percentage of particles.
Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?
A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.
I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.
What is pandemic paid leave?
The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
Dr. Bosch and his colleagues then went back even further, examining nine samples taken every few weeks or months between January 2018 and December 2019. In a single sample, taken March 12, 2019, they got a positive result from their tests for the virus.
Dr. Bosch found it plausible that the virus could appear in March but not show up in more recent samples.
“Respiratory viruses usually have peaks around this time of the year,” Dr. Bosch said. “Probably the virus then disappeared.”
But Dr. Xagoraraki noted that the researchers used tests that search for bits of three different genes. The only tests that came back positive were for a gene called RdRp. One of the other tests, for a gene called N, is known to be more sensitive. “It should have shown a signal as well,” Dr. Xagoraraki said.
It was possible that the positive results were the result of contamination from other samples that did have the virus, Dr. Xagoraraki said. She also doubted whether the delicate coronavirus could have survived for over a year without the sample having been put in a deep freeze. “If the samples were not stored in -80 degrees, you can’t trust the results,” she said.
Gertjan Medema of the KWR Water Research Institute in the Netherlands said that the study came from a “knowledgeable research team,” and so should be taken seriously. But, he added, “they need to confirm this finding in multiple ways.”
Dr. Bosch said that his team would not be able to repeat the experiments in the positive sample from March 2019 because it was depleted during the first test. “We proved it from this sample but we cannot repeat it,” he said. But contamination was unlikely, he said. “The way we work, when there is contamination, we notice it.”
Another way to confirm the finding would be to search through stored samples of blood from patients in Barcelona hospitals in March 2019. If the virus were circulating, even briefly, in Spain, some people would most likely have been hospitalized complaining of flulike symptoms.