New York Coronavirus Outbreak May Have Originated in Europe

two independent studies found evidence suggesting europe, not china, led to ny outbreak

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

New research suggests most New York coronaviruses originated in Europe, The New York Times reported Wednesday. Two separate teams studying genomes from New Yorkers arrived at similar conclusions. It has earned comparisons to the 1918 flu migration.

1918 flu epidemic: the Oakland Municipal Auditorium in use as a temporary hospital.
Modern-day genome studies of the 1918 flu showed that the outbreak in Philadelphia was caused by the flu virus coming back from Europe. Photo by Edward A. Rogers / Wikipedia (Public Domain)

According to The New York Times, the new information about the coronavirus entering New York comes from two independent teams of researchers. One is led by Dr. Harm van Bakel at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; the other is from N.Y.U. Grossman School of Medicine including Dr. Adriana Heguy.

“Dr. Heguy and Dr. van Bakel belong to an international guild of viral historians,” the article said. “They ferret out the history of outbreaks by poring over clues embedded in the genetic material of viruses taken from thousands of patients. Both teams analyzed genomes from coronaviruses taken from New Yorkers starting in mid-March.”

While previously believed to have entered the state from its point of origin in Wuhan, China, the new evidence of the coronavirus migration into New York shares qualities with Philadelphia’s outbreak of the 1918 flu. Dr. Bruce E. Fleury, who had been a Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University, shared insights into the 1918 flu with The Great Courses when he taught a course for us, before his unfortunate passing.

A Poor Response, A Rapid Spread

In his course Mysteries of the Microscopic World for The Great Courses, the late Dr. Fleury spoke extensively about the 1918 flu re-entering the United States after an initial outbreak.

“Philadelphia was typical of big cities ravaged by the flu—overcrowding, inadequate social services, and squalid living conditions amongst the poor made the city the perfect breeding ground for infection,” Dr. Fleury said. “Influenza entered the city in mid-September 1918 via the navy yard; on September 27, some 200 flu cases had been reported, 123 of them among civilians. Nonetheless, the city fathers refused to cancel the Liberty Loan parade, designed to sell war bonds, scheduled for the next day.”

Dr. Fleury said that on October 3, the government ordered the closure of all schools, churches, and theaters, as well as banning public gatherings. During this time, 12 emergency hospitals would open to receive flu patients, retired doctors were called back to work, and all five Philadelphia medical schools closed in order to send their third- and fourth-year students to help the sick.

“The city resorted to burying the poor in mass graves; citizens were given wooden boxes and instructed to leave their dead on the front porch,” he said. “Some bodies were heaped into wagons, reminiscent of scenes from the Black Death. People often had to live with dead bodies in their homes for several days.”

According to Dr. Fleury, the flu epidemic began to slow down in Philadelphia by October 18. He said that churches reopened on the 27th, with schools following suit the next day; theaters and bars reopened on the 30th. However, by then, the disease had taken its toll.

“As the epidemic peaked during the week of October 16, 4,597 people died—759 of them on October 10 alone.” he said. “Estimates of American dead run to 675,000 out of a population of 105 million. The best global estimate is 50 to 100 million dead out of 1.8 billion.”

Dr. Fleury is Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University

This article contains material taught by Dr. Bruce E. Fleury. Dr. Fleury was Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University, where he previously earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in Biology. He earned a B.A. from the University of Rochester in Psychology and General Science.