A Seattle lab uncovered Washington's coronavirus outbreak only after defying federal regulators

Peter Weber

A lack of test kits for the new COVID-19 coronavirus is still obscuring the extent of the outbreak in the U.S., but for a critical period in February, there were no functional federal tests and "local officials across the country were left to work blindly as the crisis grew undetected and exponentially," The New York Times reports. The coronavirus has now infected more than 1,000 people in 36 states and Washington, D.C., according to Johns Hopkins University's count.

The first U.S. outbreak was in Washington state, where authorities confirmed the first patient — suffering from respiratory problems after visiting Wuhan, China — only after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made an exception to strict testing criteria. In Seattle, Dr. Helen Chu, an infectious disease expert who was part of an ongoing flu-monitoring effort, the Seattle Flu Study, asked permission to test their trove of collected flu swabs for coronavirus.

State health officials joined Chu in asking the CDC and Food and Drug Administration to waive privacy rules and allow clinical tests in a research lab, citing the threat of significant loss of life. The CDC and FDA said no. "We felt like we were sitting, waiting for the pandemic to emerge," Chu told the Times. "We could help. We couldn't do anything."

They held off for a couple of weeks, but on Feb. 25, Chu and her colleagues "began performing coronavirus tests, without government approval," the Times reports. They found a positive case pretty quickly, and after discussing the ethics, they told state health officials, who confirmed the next day that a teenager who hadn't traveled abroad had COVID-19 — and the virus had likely been spreading undetected throughout the Seattle area for weeks. Later that day, the CDC and FDA told Chu and her colleagues to stop testing, then partially relented, and the lab found several more cases. On Monday night, they were ordered to stop testing again.

"In the days since the teenager's test, the Seattle region has spun into crisis, with dozens of people testing positive and at least 22 dying," the Times notes. "The scientists said they believe that they will find evidence that the virus was infecting people even earlier, and that they could have alerted authorities sooner if they had been allowed to test." Read more about the red tape at The New York Times.

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