Using the COVID-19 to influenza ratio to estimate early pandemic spread in Wuhan, China and Seattle, US.


In Wuhan, there were an estimated 1386 [95% CrI: 420-3793] symptomatic cases over 30 of COVID-19 between December 30, 2019 and January 12, 2020. In Seattle, we estimate that 2268 [95% CrI: 498, 6069] children under 18 and 4367 [95% CrI: 2776, 6526] adults were symptomatically infected between February 24 and March 9, 2020. We also find that the initial pandemic wave in Wuhan likely originated with a single infected case who developed symptoms sometime between October 26 and December 13, 2019; in Seattle, the seeding likely occurred between December 25, 2019 and January 15, 2020.

Pandemic SARS-CoV-2 was first reported in Wuhan, China on December 31, 2019. Twenty-one days later, the US identified its first case--a man who had traveled from Wuhan to the state of Washington. Recent studies in the Wuhan and Seattle metropolitan areas retrospectively tested samples taken from patients with COVID-like symptoms. In the Wuhan study, there were 4 SARS-CoV-2 positives and 7 influenza positives out of 26 adults outpatients who sought care for influenza-like-illness at two central hospitals prior to January 12, 2020. The Seattle study reported 25 SARS-CoV-2 positives and 442 influenza positives out of 2353 children and adults who reported acute respiratory illness prior to March 9, 2020. Here, we use these findings to extrapolate the early prevalence of symptomatic COVID-19 in Wuhan and Seattle.

The spread of COVID-19 in Wuhan and Seattle was far more extensive than initially reported. The virus likely spread for months in Wuhan before the lockdown. Given that COVID-19 appears to be overwhelmingly mild in children, our high estimate for symptomatic pediatric cases in Seattle suggests that there may have been thousands more mild cases at the time.

For each city, we estimate the ratio of COVID-19 to influenza infections from the retrospective testing data and estimate the age-specific prevalence of influenza from surveillance reports during the same time period. Combining these, we approximate the total number of symptomatic COVID-19 infections.

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