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U.C. London study: Coronavirus epidemic could have begun in early October

That pushes the start date back well over a month

Scientists at University College London argued this week that the coronavirus epidemic could have begun as early as October of 2019, pushing the start date of the outbreak back by over a month and suggesting that the disease has been circulating throughout the global population for significantly longer than earlier findings.

Initial estimates by public health officials and epidemiologists pegged the start of the outbreak in mid-to-late November, with researchers suggesting that the disease jumped from animals to humans in Wuhan, China around that time before spreading out of that province to the rest of the world.

Yet the U.C. London researchers this week pushed the outer bound of the pandemic back even further, to as early as Oct. 6. The academics made that estimates in a study titled “Emergence of genomic diversity and recurrent mutations in SARS-CoV-2,” published in the journal Infection, Genetics and Evolution.

“The origin of the regression between sampling dates and ‘root-to-tip’ distances provides a cursory point estimate for the time to the MRCA (tMRCA) around late 2019. Using TreeDater, we observe an estimated tMRCA, which corresponds to the start of the COVID-19 epidemic, of 6 October 2019–11 December 2019,” the study declares (citations and fig markers omitted).

That astonishing claim tracks closely with recent and ongoing discoveries in the scientific community that the disease has been infecting people worldwide for considerably longer than scientists had initially thought.

Many governments throughout Europe, believing the disease had only begun to spread worldwide starting in January, began locking down their economies in late February and early March, with U.S. lockdowns beginning in mid-March. India ordered a nationwide lockdown on Mar. 24. The U.S. state of Florida did not shut down until early April.

The new research indicates that the disease may have already spread across the globe well before those shutdowns, possibly rendering them somewhat moot at least as far as preventing the spread of the virus was concerned. The U.S. confirmed its first case in mid-January, but research last month indicated the first case may have been weeks before that. The first French case (and the first case in Europe) was confirmed in mid-January, but a French hospital this week said the earliest confirmed case in that country is now pegged to December.

Read the U.C. London study here.

MORE: Stanford epidemiologist warns that coronavirus crackdown is based on bad data

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