04/24/2020

A Shifted Coronavirus Timeline

12:04 minutes

This story is part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.


This week, autopsies in Santa Clara County, California revealed coronavirus deaths in the United States began earlier than previously thought. Tissue samples from two people, who died Feb. 6 and Feb. 17, tested positive for COVID-19. This is three weeks before what was previously considered the first U.S. coronavirus death, outside of Seattle. 

Experts say this shifted timeline could mean other winter deaths attributed to the flu or pneumonia may have actually been COVID-19. But a lack of tests have left families without clear answers. 

Joining Ira to talk about this story and others is Annalee Newitz, a science journalist and author based in San Francisco, California. 


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Segment Guests

Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author based in San Francisco, California. They are author of The Future of Another Timeline and co-host of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. This hour, we’ll talk about an illness called Valley Fever that is caused by breathing in a soil fungus. We’ll hear from patients and talk about the latest treatments.

But first, we learned this week that the first death from coronavirus in the US happened on February 6. This is a big deal. Because before now, we thought the first death was three weeks later on February 29.

So what does this changed coronavirus timeline mean? Here to talk about that and other short stories in science is Annalee Newitz, journalist and author based in San Francisco. Welcome back, Annalee.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Hey, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s jump right into this story about a shifted coronavirus timeline in the US. There were two people who died before February 29. Tell us about this. What’s going on here?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So this new timeline starts in Santa Clara, California. That is a city kind of in the Silicon Valley area. And what we know is that both of these deaths were originally chalked up to some kind of influenza.

But a medical examiner, an intrepid medical examiner, decided to send a couple of tissue samples off to the CDC. And when we found out that, indeed, it was coronavirus, it completely changes our picture of how the disease was spreading.

Because these two people do not appear to have any connection to travelers, nor had they traveled. So it seems like these are examples of community spread.

IRA FLATOW: And so it means the virus was around longer than we thought, right?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Much longer than we thought, potentially, and also spreading within the communities. So this is not something where people were coming in from outside. So that suggests that, yeah, it had been spreading in Santa Clara County for quite a while.

IRA FLATOW: So why is it that we are just finding out now that the people died of coronavirus before our first official death?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So part of it is just that we didn’t realize at the time. Doctors assumed it was something else. They thought it was flu. They thought these people were just sick with some kind of respiratory illness.

And it’s really only now that the CDC has been able to analyze those tissues from the patients who died and figure out that, indeed, it was coronavirus. So there just haven’t been enough testing kits available. And particularly at that point in the timeline, people just weren’t being tested for the coronavirus.

And so there was just no way for medical officials to figure it out immediately.

IRA FLATOW: Now, your next story is about this drug combination that President Trump had said repeatedly could be a game changer for treating coronavirus, hydrochloroquine and azithromycin.

But this week a panel of experts put together by the government said people should not take this. Why not? What did they find?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So they found that not only is that drug combination not particularly helpful in dealing with the coronavirus. But it also can cause coronary problems, coronary failure. And what that means is that if you have any kinds of heart problems taking this drug could actually cause major, major issues.

IRA FLATOW: And so who are the health experts on this panel?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So this was a very diverse group of folks put together by the National Institutes of Health. And they range from medical professionals, medical doctors who are working on the ground to professors. And they’re from all over the country.

IRA FLATOW: I know I’m going to be sorry for asking this question. But I have to ask it. And that is do we have any idea why Trump has been so gung-ho about this combination?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: I think this is just an example of– it’s not just Trump who’s doing this. anytime we see a paper, a scientific paper, that suggests that maybe certain drugs might turn out to be the miracle cure, it’s hard not to run around like your hair is on fire saying, here it is. We figured it out.

And Trump or one of Trump’s people had read a paper that suggested that this combination of drugs might be a good antiviral and just ran with it without doing any kind of checking. And so I think this is just a lesson for all of us as we’re sitting at home going through social media to really take everything you read about miracle cures with a grain of salt and wait to see what experts say before you start ordering it online.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s move on to a country case study. And that country I’m talking about is Singapore where the coronavirus seemed to be under control for months. But now, there are reports that cases have doubled. What’s going on there?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right. So Singapore was a really shining model of flattening the curve. The country had maintained a really low level of the virus. They had not had to close down their schools. They kept most of their businesses open. And they were doing things like just temperature checks to get into public places.

And suddenly, they had this outbreak and are having to reconsider and start thinking about shelter in place.

IRA FLATOW: And where do these new infections come from?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So this is what’s interesting. The infections are coming from immigrant workers and from immigrant neighborhoods– so not just necessarily people coming in from outside, but people who are just part of ethnic minorities who are living in the country often doing construction work and other kinds of things.

And what happened was these were people who just weren’t really on the radar of police and government agencies who were doing things like contact tracing to try to get people to quarantine themselves if they’d been exposed to the virus.

None of these people were being alerted if they had come into contact with the virus. It doesn’t seem like they were being tracked at all. And so this is a bit of a reflection of what we’ve seen in the United States, where certain groups, like African-Americans and immigrant communities, are not getting the same level of medical attention as white people and more wealthy communities.

And so in Singapore, it’s a strict class divide here that we’re seeing. And people who were working class or immigrants just were outside the medical system. And now it’s really come back to cause a big problem.

And I think the lesson here is that when you’re tracking this virus and when you’re providing medical attention, you have to provide it equally to everyone. Otherwise, everyone will get sick.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s what they did, at least initially, to damp down that curve, right? They did a whole bunch of stuff like contact tracing and all kinds of things to make sure that that curve went down?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right. But contact tracing only works if you’re tracing everyone.

IRA FLATOW: Details, details.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, exactly. So it’s great if you’re tracking only rich people. Well, then you’re going to get an incredibly incomplete picture of how the virus is spreading in your actual community, which is comprised of everyone who lives there, not just the wealthy.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Let’s shift gears to a technology story. New research says there might be a reliable way to tell if you’re talking to a human or a bot online.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So this is specifically looking at bots on Twitter. This is a study that was done on a chunk of Twitter data that researchers at the University of Southern California have. And it shows an enormous number millions of social interactions on Twitter.

And I love this story, because it reminds me of that scene in Blade Runner where Decker is trying to figure out if someone is a replicant and is asking them a series of questions and getting them more and more nervous. And essentially, that’s what these researchers did.

They looked at how human beings interacted when they had a conversation and compared it with a human being interacting with what was clearly a bot. And so the first thing they did was actually figure out, how do humans interact? What’s a natural way that humans interact?

And they discovered that when two people get into a conversation– and most of these conversations from Twitter that they were looking at were political– so people getting into debates or discussions about the election. And so they found that people would, when they got excited about a conversation, they would start sending texts to each other more and more frequently.

So you’d see a bunching up of texts. And then as they got less interested, they would send those texts less and less and less frequently. And they would become shorter and shorter.

But when a person was interacting with a bot, say the bot came around and was like, Hillary Clinton sucks– because this was the 2016 election– that bot would not have that same bunching up of excited back and forth messages. It would keep sending messages at exactly the same intervals. And the messages would stay almost exactly the same length.

And so one way these researchers suggest that you can identify a bot is if it keeps sending you messages at regular intervals even though you’re in a conversation with them and all of the messages, even the very last message they send, stays the same length.

So beware of entities on Twitter that send you perfectly similar length messages.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about– your last stories about the unusual composition of a comet that can be seen from Earth last August, a really unusual comet. What did NASA reveal this week?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So Comet Borisov was spotted late last year. And as it zoomed past Earth and past our sun, scientists were able to catch a whiff of the gas coming off of it. And what they realized on looking at that gas is that this comet is coming from outside of our solar system.

So this is our second interstellar visitor in just a few years. We also had Oumuamua, if you remember, which was an interstellar rock that zoomed through the solar system really fast. And we barely got a glimpse of it before it left. But this time with Borisov, we actually got to see what it was made of.

IRA FLATOW: And so it was really unusual because it had a very high content of carbon monoxide in it.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right. And so this is what gave them the clue of where it might have come from. Because it’s very unusual for comets in our solar system to have such a high amount of carbon monoxide.

Obviously, we haven’t examined every single comet. So it’s possible that that’s more common than we realize. But knowing that it was made of carbon monoxide allowed them to speculate that it was probably formed around a red dwarf star. Because these stars are a little cooler.

And so comets who were forming close to the star could conceivably be made of a gas that cools at that rate close to a star. So it’s very unusual to see in a solar system like ours with a really hot sun.

But in a cooler solar system where planets and other bodies can get closer to the sun, you’re going to see more bodies made of carbon monoxide. The other possibility is it came from a planet that had a ton of carbon monoxide in its atmosphere and got bonked by another celestial body. And a chunk of it flew off and then eventually made it into our solar system.

So that, itself, would also be interesting. Because it would tell us that in other solar systems there’s planets that have tons of carbon monoxide. Even if they don’t have cars that are belching carbon monoxide into their atmosphere.

IRA FLATOW: Love it, Annalee. I always love talking to star stuff with you. Annalee Newitz, science journalist and author based in San Francisco, thanks for taking time to be with us today.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

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