A study in Italy has provided additional evidence that the virus may have been spreading far earlier than initially thought, being present across Europe already in the autumn of 2019.
A new study conducted by research fellows from the University of Milan has found evidence of Covid-19 in a four-year-old boy’s throat secretions from the Milan area as early as the end of November 2019, months before the first identified coronavirus disease case in Italy and also earlier than the outbreak in Wuhan city, central China.
The study, led by scientists at the University of Milan, analysed oropharyngeal swabs collected from 39 patients between September 2019 and February 2020, with one testing positive.
The research was published earlier this week by the editorially independent medical journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Milan scientists identified the Covid-19 infection in a swab taken in early December 2019 from a 4-year-old boy, who lived near Milan and first developed a cough and rhinitis since November 21, 2019 and was sent to emergency on November 30 for shortness of breath and emesis. Later he was denied to have suffered from measles by his doctors.
It’s still unclear if he infected other family members, and he had had no history of traveling abroad.
Local media said that the testing can detect the virus RNA (Ribonucleic Acid) genome, which means the result is more accurate than that from other testings.
Virus spreading earlier than thought
The first Covid-19 outbreak was reported in Wuhan, China, in December last year – although Chinese authorities have admitted that there were cases dating back to November, raising doubt over the transparency of the official data made public.
The study in Italy provided additional evidence that the virus may have been spreading far earlier than initially thought, being present across Europe already in the autumn of 2019.
The study substantially changes previous evidence that reported the first official Italian case in late February 2020.
Last month, a separate study conducted in Italy suggested that the coronavirus may have been circulating in the country as early as September 2019.
Start of the #COVID19 pandemic in Italy and Europe to be re-thought. Evidence of #SARSCoV2 transmission in early December 2019, almost 3 months before the explosion of the epidemic in Italy.https://t.co/8pfrxXOfHt— Mario Raviglione (@M_Raviglione) December 9, 2020
Mario C Raviglione, one of the paper authors for the finding, also a professor at the university, said the boy's symptoms match with those of the Covid-19, which means he had been infected with the virus one month earlier than the case first reported in China's Wuhan.
"In reality, when you go back and you find the presence of the RNA genome of the virus, then you can conclude that those symptoms are also those of Covid-19. Therefore, the conclusion is that was one case of Covid-19. A year ago, this child started having symptoms on the November 21, which means that assuming there is an incubation period of three to four days, sometime around the middle of November he was infected by someone and we don't know," the professor said.
Professor Raviglione and his team believed that although Italy announced its first lab-identified case in February 2020, sporadic cases may exist at the end of last year; and the outbreak will emerge when the virus transmission accelerates, which gives an explanation of why the first wave of the epidemic in Lombardy, a region that includes Milan, spread fast at the beginning of this year.
Once served as director of the Global TB Programme at the World Health Organization, Professor Raviglione spoke highly of China's response to the epidemic, saying anti-coronavirus measures taken in the country are effective and have offered control and prevention experiences to the rest of the world.
"And if you look at the peak of the epidemic in China, you see that it was extremely well controlled in a way because with all the major lockdown that is probably not easily done outside of China because we know the way China acts when they decide to act. So that is a sign of capability really to do the thing. I don't want to praise China. I mean I'm objective. So I'm no interest in praising China or praising Italy or to say what it is. But my opinion is that China did a great job in containing this epidemic," he added.
Italy's Ministry of Health on Friday reported 1,805,873 infections with an increase of 18,727 confirmed cases over the past 24 hours, and deaths related to the disease were 63,387 after additional 761 patients died.