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WATCH NOW: Midlothian immunologist believes COVID-19 was in U.S. earlier than thought

WATCH NOW: Midlothian immunologist believes COVID-19 was in U.S. earlier than thought

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A Midlothian immunologist believes she has turned up evidence that COVID-19 was in the U.S. in early January, long before the first officially diagnosed cases in late February.

Rebecca Caffrey, director of the COVID-19 testing program for Granger Genetics, was surprised this spring when testing blood samples drawn from people in early January.

“I was looking at people who were testing positive for COVID-19 all over the U.S. before it was supposed to be here,” she said.

Caffrey, who has a doctorate from the VCU School of Medicine, said that in April and May her Midlothian-based employer was validating its COVID-19 exposure tests to make sure the tests were not getting false positive or false negative results.

To validate positive test results, she said they obtained blood samples from staff and patients exposed to COVID-19 at the Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center in Henrico County, where 51 residents died.

To validate whether their tests accurately showed someone had not been exposed, the company obtained 60 frozen serum samples from a laboratory that had been drawn from across the country and collected on Jan. 6 and 7, before COVID-19 was believed to be in the country.

According to the CDC, the earliest the virus is thought to have been in the U.S. was in late January or early February. The first cases were not officially diagnosed in the U.S. until late February.

Of the 60 samples obtained by Granger Genetics, 45 were suitable for testing. Of those, five samples — from California, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida — had antibodies for COVID-19’s spike protein, Caffrey said.

Three samples had one antibody and two had two antibodies, she said.

“Two also had neutralizing antibodies, meaning that there is no way that these were false positives. There is no way that the neutralizing antibody to the unique part of the spike protein’s structure is present unless the immune system of that person has been exposed to the novel coronavirus,” Caffrey said.

A neutralizing antibody is an antibody that defends a cell from a virus, blocking the ability of the virus to bind to its cellular receptor and infect the cell.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., said, “I think these findings are very provocative and could very well indicate exactly what she is suggesting, but I think we need some confirmation.”

Schaffner, who said he is not an immunologist and does not know Caffrey, said there appears to be a number of limitations such as the relatively small number of samples tested. He also said more needed to be known about the origin of the samples.

“I think it’s very interesting that the positives are distributed across the country; they’re not just in one location. It makes me wonder again, what’s the source of these specimens?”

Schaffner also suggested that another lab using the same procedures test the sample in blind tests to see if the same results are obtained.

“That all said, there have been hints from other investigations that this virus may well have been here earlier than we anticipated,” he said. “So, it’s possible, though I wouldn’t take these results at face value as actually confirming those findings.”

Caffrey says there has been blind testing by another laboratory backing up what Granger found. She said Granger sent samples from its validation of the “assay,” or test, used to detect the neutralizing antibody to the company that made the test.

“They just had sample numbers on them, and they tested them for neutralizing antibodies ... and they also found that the samples were reactive, that they had neutralizing antibodies,” Caffrey said. “So it was validated by an external lab in a different state with a different operator using the same type of test.”

“No other coronavirus spike protein has such substantial similarity to the structure of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, except SARS1, which broke out in 2004,” she said. “So I can make a definitive argument that the patients who donated those samples had previously been exposed to SARS-CoV-2.”

Caffrey conceded she wishes they’d had more samples.

But she added, “It would great if there were researchers out there or diagnostics companies out there that had serum samples in their freezers from early January or late December that were willing to donate. It would be a fantastic research project.”

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