COVID-19 News

NIH-funded study links Chicago COVID-19 strain to early cases in China

A unique COVID-19 virus that spread through Chicago appears to link directly to an early outbreak in China and may not spread as easily and as rapidly as the virus prevalent in New York and elsewhere in the U.S., according to new research funded in part by the National Institutes of Health.

In a preliminary study of genetic makeup of the coronavirus in Chicago, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine researchers discovered a unique type that is more likely to be found locally than other parts of the country. The goal of better understanding the genetic difference in virus outbreaks is to use that information to develop effective vaccines.

After studying the genetic makeup of dozens of virus samples of nearly 90 people, the Northwestern researchers determined that there were three main types of the virus found locally.

Almost 60 percent of the samples studied were closely related to the virus that is prevalent in New York, which has been traced to Europe.

Thirty percent of the samples belonged to a virus type largely unique to Chicago, which is closely related to the virus from China, the study found. It also notes that the second confirmed case in the U.S. was in Chicago after a woman traveled in Wuhan, China.

Less than 10% of the samples were classified as a type closely aligned with the virus in Washington state, lead investigator Dr. Egon Ozer said in an interview.

“This is one of the first studies we’re aware of that is able to show these different groups,” Ozer said. “Does it mean it will transmit more frequently or more easily to people? We don’t know that but this kind of study starts us looking in that direction.”

The research, which is preliminary and not peer reviewed, suggests that not all variations of the virus act the same, Ozer said. Early findings suggest that the virus that’s prevalent in New York may spread to people through the nose and throat at a higher rate than the virus that is unique to Chicago.

The genetic research is giving scientists early clues about different characteristics of the infections, though they caution that more research is needed.

“These differences might help us understand where a vaccine might be most effective,” Ozer said. “Wherever those differences are, this is a potential weakness in the virus.”

The study was done by collecting virus samples from COVID-19 tests for 88 patients in March. The genetic material was compared with 4,000 genetic samples from across the country and abroad collected in a research database.

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