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COVID-19 was probably in Wuhan longer than reported, study.

Wuhan City in China was the first place to report COVID-19 in the world and–between December 2019 and May 2020–caused nearly two-thirds of all COVID-19 cases in China. Now, researchers reporting in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases have tested more than 60,000 healthy individuals in China for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies and concluded that thousands of Wuhan residents were infected with asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 after the infection was believed to be under control in China.

Rapid antibody tests are used to diagnosis present and past infections with the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19; positive IgG antibodies suggests a previous infection while IgM antibodies mean a current or recent infection. Detection of both types of antibodies can give a better understanding of the number of asymptomatic infections in a population over time. In Wuhan, the number of COVID-19 cases peaked in February 2020 and the city was initially declared to be free of disease in late April, although small clusters of cases appeared in later months.


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In the new work, Xue-jie Yu of Wuhan University, China, and colleagues studied the prevalence of IgG and IgM antibodies in blood samples collected between March 6 and May 3, 2020, from 63,107 individuals in China. All people tested were healthy and were undergoing screening before returning to work.

Consistent with a large number of cases having occurred in Wuhan, the percentage of people with positive SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, about 1.68%, was significantly higher than in other regions of China, where antibody positivity averaged 0.38%. Moreover, according to the IgM positive rate of 0.46% in Wuhan, the researchers estimated that thousands of people in Wuhan were infected asymptomatically between March and May 2020, when there were not clinically reported cases of COVID-19.

“We conclude that… a large amount of asymptomatic carriers of SARS-CoV-2 existed after elimination of clinical cases of COVID-19 in Wuhan City,” the researchers say. “Avirulent SARS-CoV-2 strains may still cause symptoms in extremely susceptible individuals and it may also revert to a highly virulent strain to reignite the epidemic of COVID-19 in China.”


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