Testing In Your State; Where Did The Coronavirus Come From? : Consider This from NPR Testing for the coronavirus is still falling short in many places in the U.S. How is your state doing? Track it using a tool from NPR.

A mutated strain of the coronavirus may have helped it spread more widely, according to a new preliminary study that's getting a lot of attention even before it's peer-reviewed.

Despite Trump administration claims that the coronavirus may have accidentally escaped from a lab in China, scientists it's more likely the coronavirus spread naturally. Listen to Short Wave's episode about why, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and NPR One, and explore a second episode about the likelihood the virus originated in bats.

One of the deadliest outbreaks of the coronavirus has been at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home in Massachusetts. Officials are investigating what happened there.

Plus, experiments are undeway to see if dogs can be trained to sniff out the coronavirus. Meanwhile, U.S. animal shelters have reported having all their dogs fostered during the lock down.

Find and support your local public radio station

Sign up for 'The New Normal' newsletter

This episode was recorded and published as part of this podcast's former 'Coronavirus Daily' format.
NPR logo

Track Your State's Testing; What A Possible Mutation Means

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/851974059/852435405" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Track Your State's Testing; What A Possible Mutation Means

Track Your State's Testing; What A Possible Mutation Means

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/851974059/852435405" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Odds are the state where you live is not testing enough people for the coronavirus.


ASHISH JHA: Ultimately, I am deeply worried that four, six, eight weeks down the road, we're going to find ourselves in the exact same place we were in in early March and we will have to shut the economy down again.

MCEVERS: Dr. Ashish Jha runs the Harvard Global Health Institute, which, along with NPR, has analyzed testing in every state. It turns out that only a handful of states are doing enough testing to reopen safely. You can track how your state is doing. There's a link to that in our episode notes.

And we learned today that another 3.2 million people filed for unemployment for the first time last week. That means in all, at least 33.5 million people have lost their jobs in the past seven weeks. Coming up, why scientists are racing to understand how the virus is mutating and an effort to train dogs to sniff out COVID-19. This is CORONAVIRUS DAILY from NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers. It's Thursday, May 7.


MCEVERS: Where did the coronavirus come from? Internet search traffic suggests a lot of us are looking for answers to that question. One theory that the White House is promoting - a theory for which they have yet to produce any evidence - is that the virus leaked from a Chinese lab.


SIMON ANTHONY: Just thinking about the way that we do this type of work...

RAINA PLOWRIGHT: I think it's very unlikely.

ANTHONY: ...It would be very unlikely this would be a lab exposure.

MCEVERS: NPR's daily science podcast Short Wave talked to virologists and epidemiologists and heard over and over again that it is far more likely this virus originated and spread naturally by way of close contact between humans and animals.

Here's why. First, there are many coronaviruses out there. Evidence suggests this coronavirus might have come from bats, which are studied in a lab in Wuhan - the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It's a top-tier Chinese research center. But experts also estimate that bats, on a global scale, carry almost 4,000 different coronaviruses.


ANTHONY: Most of the viruses, actually, probably don't even have the capacity to infect humans.

MCEVERS: That's Simon Anthony at Columbia University Medical Center. For scientists to find a coronavirus in the wild that had already evolved in a way that was highly infectious to people - those are just lottery odds.

We also should say U.S. intelligence agencies have ruled out any version of events where the virus was manmade and leaked intentionally. And scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology deny they had any such virus in the first place. Even if they did, for it to leak out, some very stringent lab safety protections would have to have been seriously ignored at risk to lab workers themselves. On top of all of that, scientists would only do work in the first place with viral samples that had been frozen in liquid nitrogen and then killed using chemicals.


PLOWRIGHT: What does the abundance of evidence suggest?

MCEVERS: That's Raina Plowright at Montana State University.


PLOWRIGHT: In this case, the abundance of evidence suggests this is a virus that has spilled from bats either into another species and then humans or perhaps from bats directly into humans.

MCEVERS: The virus might have spread in that wet market we've heard about. But scientists don't know that for sure either. In China, like a lot of places in the world, humans and animals are in increasingly close contact.


PLOWRIGHT: We're fragmenting habitats. We're building roads through most regions of the world. We're incrementally destroying the large landscapes the animals have to live in.

MCEVERS: NPR's Emily Kwong and Geoff Brumfiel have more on the origins of the virus and why scientists believe working with China is key to learning more about it. You can listen to more about this on Short Wave, NPR's daily science podcast. You can find links to that in our episode notes.


MCEVERS: So the biggest story in the world is a science story, which means, at worst, we are all trying to be armchair experts, and, at best, we're all learning a lot. The thing is, science is a process. And part of that process are preliminary studies. In these urgent times, scientists are circulating these preliminary studies quickly to share news and sort of crowdsource their work.

One such study recently came from the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico. Scientists there think they might have identified a mutation that helped coronavirus spread so widely. NPR's global health reporter Pien Huang talked to All Things Considered host Ailsa Chang about what this possible mutation in the virus would mean.


PIEN HUANG: Viruses are always mutating, and the coronavirus is no different. And when a virus infects someone, it gets into their cells, and it starts making copies of itself. And when it makes those copies, it sometimes introduces a few changes. And those changes often get passed on to the next person who gets infected. So those are the mutations. And the coronavirus has been changing at a steady, predictable rate from the beginning, which is usually about one or two mutations per month.

AILSA CHANG: OK. So a virus changing is nothing weird. These changes are called mutations.

HUANG: Exactly. Yeah. And so scientists at Los Alamos and in many other labs are really interested in these mutations because they are a way to track how the virus is moving through a population. They're kind of like ID cards. So for instance, there was a study looking at mutations on the Arizona State University campus. And it showed that the students that were showing up sick with coronavirus had versions of it from different places. So that means that there probably wasn't an outbreak on campus. They had just gotten sick on spring break and brought it back.

CHANG: OK. So back to this study from Los Alamos. Scientists there are looking at all of these various mutations. And what did they find?

HUANG: It looks like a version of the virus that has a particular mutation has been more prevalent. It started spreading in Europe in early February. And the researchers say that it seems to dominate in the U.S., Australia, countries in Africa, wherever it spreads.

CHANG: So it sounds like the concern here is that this virus is changing to become more contagious. Am I getting that right?

HUANG: So that is what the Los Alamos researchers think it could mean. But other researchers say that it is not proven yet. There's been a lot of pushback from the scientific community about this idea that, because it's more dominant, it's a strain that's better at infecting people. I spoke with a couple of researchers who said that it might not be that this mutation is more aggressive; it could also just be that it got started and it spread quickly before Europe could lock down. So the researchers that I spoke with stress that there's no clear evidence that the mutation actually changes the virus' behavior. So they're saying that it's a good theory that this genetic change might make the virus more contagious, but it's not proven by a long shot.

CHANG: So interesting. But what about the development of treatments or the development of a vaccine? How does this research affect any of that?

HUANG: So what the researchers I spoke with told me is that this particular finding is something they're paying really close attention to, but it doesn't actually threaten any vaccines or medicines that are currently under development. It's a mutation that they've known about since February, first of all. And so the value of a study like this is that it identifies something really interesting and points other scientists towards it so they can take a closer look.


MCEVERS: NPR's Pien Huang with All Things Considered host Ailsa Chang.

The coronavirus seems to be clustering in nursing homes. We don't know exactly to what extent. The government hasn't made enough data available to track cases everywhere. We do know that one of the deadliest outbreaks in the country is at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home. It's a state-run nursing home for veterans in western Massachusetts. At least 72 vets have died from the virus there. Another 80 veterans and more than 80 employees have tested positive. Now the facility is a target for federal and state investigators. Here's Miriam Wasser of member station WBUR in Boston.


MIRIAM WASSER: Kwesi Ablordeppey is a certified nursing assistant at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. On March 16, he was assigned to work on a floor where a resident was awaiting the results of a coronavirus test after developing a cough and a fever.

KWESI ABLORDEPPEY: So I asked, what are the plans? And they say they don't know.

WASSER: Ablordeppey, who's worked at the Soldiers' Home for 20 years, was shocked by the lack of infection control plans. But he says he was even more horrified to find that the symptomatic man was sitting in the common room with other veterans.

ABLORDEPPEY: If somebody's exhibiting this COVIC (ph) symptoms, that person need to be isolated. The person was still in the common room.

WASSER: The man had dementia and so couldn't reasonably be asked to practice social distancing or wear a mask. But Ablordeppey says letting him interact with other residents was the first of many bad decisions management made over the next two weeks. Another bad call was rationing personal protective equipment, or PPE, instead of giving it to everyone who worked with sick residents.

ABLORDEPPEY: People who are going to take care of somebody who is exhibiting the COVIC symptoms have no mask. What kind of practice is this?

WASSER: In fact, documents show that Ablordeppey was written up for wearing PPE without permission. That same weekend, the symptomatic veteran's test results came back positive, and the Soldiers' Home sent out a press release saying he was properly quarantined. But according to Joe Ramirez, another CNA at the Soldiers' Home, the man's three roommates were just moved into other rooms on the memory care floor.

JOE RAMIREZ: He was still kept in the unit in a room by himself, but a door still open. I don't consider that isolation.

WASSER: Ramirez says the Soldiers' Home has been chronically short-staffed for years, and there weren't enough CNAs on duty to keep the veteran from interacting with others on the floor. The staffing problems at the home got even worse in late March when employees started calling out sick. It's unclear who made the call, but Ablordeppey says someone in management decided to combine a unit of patients who had been exposed to the virus with another unit that hadn't so that fewer staff were needed in any given shift.

Staff had to cram extra beds into bedrooms and move nine people into a dining room. Ablordeppey says this is when the virus truly got out of control and the body bags started piling up in the refrigerated truck parked outside the home.

On Monday, March 30, the true extent of the outbreak finally came to light. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker called in the National Guard and put the facility superintendent, a retired Marine named Bennett Walsh, on paid administrative leave. Walsh did not respond to a request for comment, but he did say last month that he asked state officials for help and got no response. The state agency that oversees the Soldiers' Home won't say when it learned about the problem.

Within days of the story breaking, multiple state and federal authorities opened investigations into the home. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is one of them. Here she is on Fox News last month.


MAURA HEALEY: What is alleged is that staff never had the PPE to begin with, that patients - residents were not properly isolated and that the facility was late and delayed reporting to state authorities who might've been able to provide assistance.

WASSER: We don't know yet whether any of the inquiries will yield civil or criminal charges. But with more than a third of the home's veterans dead, Healey says she isn't ruling anything out.

MCEVERS: WBUR's Miriam Wasser.


MCEVERS: Moxie has been working hard.



MCEVERS: She's a Labrador retriever, and she is part of a study at the University of Pennsylvania.


CYNTHIA OTTO: We have eight dogs that are in training.

MCEVERS: Researcher Cynthia Otto is trying to figure out if dogs can detect COVID-19 in humans.


OTTO: The next step is going to be determining is there a specific odor associated with COVID-19?

MCEVERS: She says a lot of diseases have odors - diabetes, cancer, malaria. And maybe some day down the road, dogs could help check for people with COVID-19 in public places.


OTTO: Would it be at the airport or at the train station? Or would it be at a business that we're, you know, screening people before we allow them in or a hospital?

MCEVERS: Any results are months away, which is also how long you might have to wait if you are looking for a dog of your own.


JULIE BANK: And if you could see, we have a completely empty adoption center.


MCEVERS: Last month, the Riverside County Animal Shelter in Southern California had no animals available. Normally, there's a kind of supply chain that would move animals in from other areas. But the pandemic has slowed that down, and more and more people are looking for some company at home.


BANK: And we are so, so very thankful to all of you for doing right by our community animals. And because of that, we're...



MCEVERS: Cynthia Otto talked to NPR's All Things Considered, and Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi of NPR's Planet Money team reported on the animal supply chain.

For more on the coronavirus, you can stay up to date with all the news on your local public radio station. We'll be back with more tomorrow. I'm Kelly McEvers.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.