Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
It wasn’t just major cities on the coasts that caught the new coronavirus from international travelers.
Out here in the West, many of the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wyoming and New Mexico were caused by strains of the coronavirus discovered in parts of Europe and Australia, according to scientists at the University of New Mexico.
The virus that caused one of the first COVID-19 cases in New Mexico was closely related to samples found in the Netherlands and Switzerland. And there were multiple instances of other early New Mexico cases that were closely related to virus strains from Iceland, France, Germany and even Australia, said Daryl Domman, an assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at UNM.
“It was quite striking for me to see in such plain detail how much international spread had occurred,” Domman said. “Even in states like New Mexico, and especially Wyoming, which are isolated, mostly rural states.”
Scientists Darrell Dinwiddie, an assistant professor in the UNM Department of Pediatrics, and Domman are leading an effort to sequence the virus that caused confirmed COVID-19 cases in New Mexico. They analyze the genetic code of the virus, looking for tiny variations so it can be tracked to other confirmed cases around the country and world.
Their findings will ultimately be combined with similar work being done at public health and academic labs throughout the country as part of an effort being led by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They said the research ultimately will lead to a better understanding of how the novel coronavirus spreads from person to person, which will help in making public policy decisions.
Last week, Domman and Dinwiddie talked about their initial findings after sequencing and analyzing the first 48 confirmed COVID-19 cases in New Mexico and 20 in Wyoming.
They found that the virus came from multiple directions.
Of the first 48 cases in New Mexico, at least 19 or 20 were unique strains. In Wyoming, more than half of the first 20 were unique.
“There were multiple times it came into the state,” Dinwiddie said. “It was pretty much inevitable.”
The UNM scientists are focusing on New Mexico cases. But Domman is from Wyoming, and they are also getting samples from that state’s health lab to see how the virus is spreading across the Mountain West region.
When a virus in New Mexico is tracked to a strain found in another country, it shows that the patient either traveled there or was exposed to someone else who had traveled to that part of the world, Domman said.
Continuing to trace the strains that appear in New Mexico will be useful as state officials make public policy decisions concerning the pandemic.
“With that information, that arms our public health officials to make really data-oriented and informed decisions about public health policies to particular communities and at a statewide level,” Domman said.
When the New Mexico Department of Health gets a confirmed case, it is required to send a part of the sample to the CDC. Recently, UNM was able to get access to a sample of inactive pathogen from positive tests to do the analysis.
“It took a tremendous amount of cooperation, agreements and regulatory approvals,” said Dr. Richard Larson, the executive vice chancellor of the UNM Health Sciences Center. “Over time, I think we’ll be able to understand the spread of disease much better than other states.”
Scientists have analyzed the virus’s genetic data to see how it spread in other places as well.
In New York City, for example, the virus came primarily from Europe and spread in mid-February, before the city had confirmed cases, according to The New York Times. The Times also reported that scientists traced early cases in Seattle directly to Wuhan, China.
In New Mexico, Dinwiddie and Domman said, their work will eventually shine a light on when the virus first appeared here.
“When we look at genetic data from other states, it confirms the virus had been in those other states circulating undetected for a period of time that the health departments did not know about,” Dinwiddie said. “That quite likely was the case for New Mexico at well.”