Retrospective Detection of SARS-CoV-2 in Symptomatic Patients prior to Widespread Diagnostic Testing in Southern California

Clin Infect Dis. 2021 May 3;ciab360. doi: 10.1093/cid/ciab360. Online ahead of print.


Background: Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has caused one of the worst pandemics in recent history. Few reports have revealed that SARS-CoV-2 was spreading in the United States as early as the end of January. In this study, we aimed to determine if SARS-CoV-2 had been circulating in the Los Angeles (LA) area at a time when access to diagnostic testing for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) was severely limited.

Methods: We used a pooling strategy to look for SARS-CoV-2 in remnant respiratory samples submitted for regular respiratory pathogen testing from symptomatic patients from November 2019 to early March 2020. We then performed sequencing on the positive samples.

Results: We detected SARS-CoV-2 in 7 specimens from 6 patients, dating back to mid-January. The earliest positive patient, with a sample collected on January 13, 2020 had no relevant travel history but did have a sibling with similar symptoms. Sequencing of these SARS-CoV-2 genomes revealed that the virus was introduced into the LA area from both domestic and international sources as early as January.

Conclusions: We present strong evidence of community spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the LA area well before widespread diagnostic testing was being performed in early 2020. These genomic data demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 was being introduced into Los Angeles County from both international and domestic sources in January 2020.

Keywords: Diagnostic Testing; SARS-CoV-2.