No, the Coronavirus Has Not Been in the U.S. for a Year

Debunking a viral — and dangerous — theory about the flu we all got in 2019

If you got sick with a cough and fever back in November and December, there’s a good chance you might now be wondering, “Was that coronavirus?” After all, your symptoms were similar, and as a young, healthy person, maybe you just got over it. Such is the evidence-free theory posed by this random woman on Twitter — and retweeted by thousands of others. 

Her theory is ripe for conspiracy. The logic is simple; plenty of anecdotal evidence exists; and better yet, it requires a juicy cover-up. Surely the CDC knew all along that these people had something worse than the flu, but they wanted to keep it under wraps! 

However, when I put the question to Anna Wald, head of the Allergy and Infectious Diseases Division at the University of Washington — i.e., if someone was sick in November and tested negative for the flu, was that coronavirus? — she emphatically answers, “It wasn’t!” 

For starters, she explains, the CDC knows what the flu is. It tests for the flu, tracks the flu and understands the flu genetically. In other words, the CDC doesn’t guess sick people have the flu; it has data that proves that’s the case. Which is why there’s a good reason why @mamaxbea remembers so many people being sick around the holidays; they were sick — with the flu. 

Here’s a graph from the CDC, based on lab-confirmed testing, that shows how early and hard flu season came this year

Okay, so what if they didn’t have the flu. Maybe they got it despite getting a flu shot or testing negative for the flu. Surely it was COVID-19, and they were lucky enough to have mild symptoms.

Wrong again. “There are other respiratory viruses,” Wald explains, adding that someone who tests negative for the flu might have been sick with “parainfluenza or RSV.” In fact, she says there are other human strains of coronavirus that “can cause a flu-like syndrome that circulate every year in the community. So it could have been coronavirus, but not SARS-CoV-2,” the specific strain of coronavirus currently classified as a pandemic.

Again, how is she so sure? By virtue of the symptoms and genetic makeup of COVID-19 being unique. The reason we know the virus originated in Wuhan when it did is because medical researchers had never seen this particular strain of coronavirus in humans ever before — hence the name “novel” coronavirus

To be even more specific, genetic sequences of COVID-19 point to it having jumped into humans from a still unknown animal sometime between mid-November and early December and then spreading in Wuhan. The health system there started picking up pneumonia cases with no clear explanation the last week of December, which is when it was first investigated.

With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine an American doctor discovering a never-before-seen strain of viral infection in November or December, shrugging it off and sending the patient on their merry way. It would never happen, as the CDC would be informed immediately and any test that came back with an unknown, novel strain of coronavirus would have instantly raised alarms (an unreasonable amount of tinfoil is required to believe otherwise). 

So no, you didn’t have coronavirus back in November — and saying you did only perpetuates the dangerous idea that it’s “no worse than the flu.”