Doctors at a Paris hospital say they have found evidence that a patient admitted in December was infected with Covid-19. If verified, this discovery would show that the virus was already circulating in Europe at that time – long before the first known cases were diagnosed in France or Italy.
“Covid-19 was already spreading in France at the end of December 2019, a month before the first official cases in the country,” writes the team from the Paris Seine Hospital Group in Saint-Denis in a study published on Sunday in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents.
The first official reports of Covid-19 in France were reported on January 24 in two people with a travel history in Wuhan, China.
Critical care specialist Dr. Yves Cohen and colleagues at the hospital wrote that they had decided to check the records of previous patients, in case the virus spreads without being detected.
American researchers have also started to find evidence that the virus infected and killed people earlier than the first cases reported in the country.
The French team examined people admitted to hospital for flu-like illness between December 2 and January 16 who were ultimately not diagnosed with influenza. They tested frozen samples from these patients for coronavirus.
“A positive sample was taken from a 42-year-old man born in Algeria, who has lived in France for many years and worked as a fishmonger,” the team wrote. “His last trip was to Algeria in August 2019.”
The man had not been to China and one of his children was also sick, the team also said.
“The identification of the first infected patient is of great epidemiological interest because it considerably modifies our knowledge concerning SARS-COV-2 and its spread in the country. In addition, the lack of connection to China and the lack of recent travel suggest that the disease was already spreading among the French population in late December 2019, “they wrote.
Europe only started reporting coronavirus cases in January. In Italy, the European country hardest hit by the virus, the first two cases were reported on January 31, among two Chinese tourists in Rome. The first known community transmission was recorded in late February in Codogno, in northern Italy.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the date of the online study.