Has COVID-19 been circulating in California since the fall?

An article has been circulating claiming that COVID-19 has been circulating since the fall in California.

The attraction of this idea would be that we’re worried for no reason, and we can all go back to work.

The university doing the research disagrees

This theory or claim is supposedly based on a study at Stanford looking at herd immunity in California. This study, however, does not conclude what this theory would require—in fact, those involved reject it. The full article is here, but a few quotes are included here to whet your appetite:

Let’s start with the facts. I reached out to Stanford Medicine to try to understand the goals of its antibody test, and how it relates to Hanson’s fall 2019 theory. The short answer on the latter is that it doesn’t. “Our research does not suggest that the virus was here that early,” says Lisa Kim of Stanford’s media relations team.

Neither does anyone else’s, it appears. “There is zero probability [SARS-CoV-2] was circulating in fall 2019,” tweeted Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who has been tracking SARS-CoV-2’s genetic code as it has spread. Allison Black, a genomic epidemiologist working in Bedford’s lab, says this is apparent from researchers’ data. As the virus spreads, it also mutates, much like the way words change in a game of Telephone. By sequencing the virus’s genome from different individual samples, researchers can track strains of the coronavirus back to its origins. They have been continually updating their findings on Nextstrain. (In case you’re wondering, the strains have nothing to do with severity of illness. They’re simply a way to track the virus’s mutations over time.)

So, as near as I can tell, these claims all come from the same place, and they misrepresent what the science and the team doing the study have found. It also flies in the face of the genetic data.

Who came up with this?

So where did this idea come from? And what motive is there for misrepresenting the science so badly?

So what’s really behind this theory? It might be worth considering the source. KSBW’s piece begins by mentioning Stanford Medicine’s research, then quotes Victor Davis Hanson, a Stanford-affiliated source; the piece reads as if Hanson is one of these aforementioned Stanford Medicine researchers. But Hanson is a military historian, not a doctor or scientist; he is affiliated with Stanford’s Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank. (I reached out to Hanson for comment, but he has not responded; we will update this article if he does.) The piece makes no effort to clarify what the Hoover Institution is, and it delves into Hanson’s “theory” as a prelude to a brief explanation of Stanford Medicine’s study. Hanson’s recent work, published in National Review, suggests he is eager to reopen the American economy. It would be quite convenient, then, to claim that the virus has already torn through the U.S. and granted us immunity.

Hanson has nothing to do with the research. He is a conservative political commentator and pundit. (And sometimes a quite insightful one–I’ve enjoyed him in the past when he’s talking about things more in his wheelhouse.)

He also wants to restrict the number of Chinese nationals admitted into the United States–so there is an agenda at work. (Never mind that strains have been tracked from US nationals coming from China–so even banning the Chinese wouldn’t have helped. Like it or not, we are linked in a global village. We can’t pull up the drawbridge and hope the moat will protect us–at least in the long term.)

But, regardless of whether the mistake was made intentionally or accidentally, Stanford’s scientists themselves have rejected the interpretation which these articles give it. That means they are false.

Pending more information, then, we should quit spreading this idea and quit treating it as possibly true. It isn’t, as far as what is publicly available can tell us. None of the scientists involved think so.

Why do such things spread?

These are scary times. It is difficult to feel powerless and unable to affect events that have impacted everyone so profoundly. That is especially true when we are afraid for our businesses and livelihoods.

The experts in public health have also scrambled to do the right thing. Some have really let us down. (Alberta has done quite well overall; parts of the United States, especially the US federal government, far less so. Ontario has not had enough protective equipment for health care workers. And so on.) So it would be understandable if the epidemiologists and virologists were likewise incompetent, and we could just do what we really want to do–get our lives back to normal.

This all feels like a bad dream–and it is tempting to believe that it is and that everything is really OK without social distancing and an economy in free-fall.

But, in this case, the incompetence is on the part of Hanson–a non-expert who has misrepresented or misunderstood what the Stanford researchers are saying.

One of the most frightening things about the world is that it sometimes doesn’t make sense. No one is at the wheel. That can be a more intimidating thought than the belief that there is a political or scientific conspiracy afoot–because then that shows that people can at least master this situation. We can pull strings, move nations, and influence outcomes in a sophisticated, detailed way. And we have penetrated the conspiracy.

It can be hard to accept that mortal, human men and women are quite vulnerable before the world and its “natural disasters.”

Only God is in control; we certainly are not.

Anyway, read the whole article and see what you think. But remember, the Hoover Institution is not a scientific group. It’s a conservative political think tank. And politicians–on the left and on the right–are not very good at science. At best, they can listen to people who are.