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Glimpse into the White House Cluster

The New York Times enlisted geneticists to sequence SARS-CoV-2 samples from two of the paper's journalists who contracted the virus while covering the White House.

The journalists — Michael Shear and Al Drago — are thought to have become ill in the course of their work, according to the Times. It notes that Shear was in close contact with President Donald Trump and administration staff while on Air Force One shortly before President Trump tested positive for the virus, while Drago covered an event honoring Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a suspected super-spreader event as many attendees later tested positive for the virus. They did not have contact with each other.

The Times reports that the White House did little to track the outbreak of the virus and a spokesperson said its origins were "unknowable." 

However, the Times had researchers led by Trevor Bedford from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington sequence samples from Shear and Drago to trace the virus's origins. As the researchers report in a preprint posted to MedRxiv, they found the two shared highly similar viral strains that were also distinct from other sequenced strains. They uncovered five mutations that distinguish this lineage from others and find that the lineage has a common ancestor in the US from April or May, though where it has been since is not clear. Sequencing of additional samples, particularly from the DC area, could help identify the origins of this viral lineage.