Scientists are trying to find a mystery person in Ohio who has a new kind of COVID and is shedding it into the sewage

An illustration of two orange and red cells with to represent SARS-CoV-2 against a light orange background.
SARS-CoV-2.National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease
  • "Cryptic" COVID-19 lineages are new versions of the virus that haven't been seen before.

  • A researcher says one person in Ohio is shedding massive amounts of a new kind of COVID.

  • Identifying people with mysterious strains can help scientists to preempt dangerous mutations.

Earlier this year, Marc Johnson, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, took to Twitter with an appeal: "Help me solve a COVID cryptic lineage mystery."

Johnson told Insider that he was looking through a database of COVID samples when he came across a brand-new version, or "lineage," of the virus. There were massive amounts of this unique strain, all coming from one mystery person in Ohio.

The viral material has been primarily found at two sites: The city of Columbus and 40 miles away in the city of Washington Court House — Johnson says the person may live in one city and work in the other.

He says that this isn't "an imminent public-health threat," and that the person likely has a form of "long COVID" that isn't contagious.

But finding these lineages, and identifying the people who spread them, could unlock new clues into how COVID mutates as well as why some people become super-shedders of the virus for long periods.

"Cryptic" COVID lineages show how the virus can mutate in new ways

Johnson told Insider that he had been identifying "cryptic" COVID lineages in wastewater nationwide since 2021. These strains "don't match anything we've seen before," he said, adding that SARS-CoV-2 still had some tricks up its sleeve and plenty we didn't know.

While these cryptic strains have only been identified in wastewater, they could be harbingers of future variants. Long before Omicron emerged, researchers were collecting samples of COVID that they didn't recognize — cryptic lineages that we now understand to be similar to Omicron, according to a preprint paper — not-yet-peer-reviewed — published last month by Johnson and his team.

The first cryptic-COVID lineage Johnson found in 2021 was a classic example of his discoveries. There was so much virus in the wastewater that he thought it was coming from a nursing home or maybe an animal reservoir like a dog shelter. But his team traced it to a single office building in Wisconsin with about 30 employees, they wrote in the preprint paper.

"I didn't believe a person could shed that much," Johnson said.

The workers in the building were notified and were able to get tested. Eventually, the lineage disappeared from the wastewater.

Trying to reach a mystery person in Ohio

A Google Maps image of the route from Washington Court House to Columbus.
The route from Washington Court House, Ohio, to Columbus, Ohio.Google Maps

Now, the situation is replaying in Ohio.

Johnson and his Twitter followers have narrowed down the list to about 1,600 people — the number of people who make the daily commute from Washington Court House to Columbus, according to US Census data.

While some have voiced concerns that he might be invading people's medical privacy, Johnson says "there's no manhunt" going on. The only reason he is being public about the situation, he added, is the hope that someone seeks help after recognizing that themselves, a friend, or a family member has the cryptic lineage.

"If someone has this infection, the chances that they're going to figure out what it is is nil," he told Insider, adding that there was currently no test available in the US to test stool for COVID. "I'm trying to get the word out so that they might figure it out and put it together."

Johnson says the person is likely experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms and may not even know they have a long-COVID infection. He says he hopes the person recognizes they are shedding the virus and goes to see a doctor. "I would love to know the details," he said, but "mostly, I want them to seek treatment."

Read the original article on Insider