Virus circulates in Italy earlier than official records

ROME (XINHUA) – New research is adding weight to the possibility that the coronavirus has already started circulating in Italy before its first officially-recorded infection.

In the latest findings, a team of researchers at the University of Milan found evidence of coronavirus antibodies from a four-year-old Italian boy who was ill in late November 2019.

The boy, who had no reported travel history, had cough and rhinitis on November 21, 2019, and was taken to the emergency department with respiratory symptoms and vomiting. On December 1, he had the onset of a measles-like rash, but an oropharyngeal swab specimen collected from the boy eventually tested negative for measles.

A recent examination of the swab showed the boy was infected with the coronavirus – the same strain that was officially recorded in Wuhan, China for the first time in December 2019.

“What the research shows is that there was a young boy in Milan who was infected by the coronavirus at a time when nobody in Europe ever heard of the outbreak,” University of Milan Global Health Centre Director Mario C Raviglione told Xinhua.

People wearing face masks in Milan. PHOTO: XINHUA

Raviglione said that the swab collected from the boy in December contained just an extract of the virus’ ribonucleic acid (RNA). Because of that, he said, there was not enough information to determine the origin of the virus, though he did say data showed conclusively that the virus strain was the same as the Wuhan variant of the coronavirus.

“The only thing we can say definitively is that when the first Italian coronavirus patient was identified in the northern Italian city of Codogno, it now seems clear he was one of many people already infected in the country,” Raviglione said.

The research added evidence to other indications that the virus may have been circulating in Europe weeks or even months earlier than previously thought. In November, the Milan-based National Cancer Institute revealed that it found evidence of coronavirus antibodies in the blood tests of four cancer patients in early October 2019, meaning they would have been infected by the virus in September.

German virologist Alexander Kekule recently said that evidence showed there was “an undetected outbreak of the original virus in Northern Italy in the early weeks of 2020” – weeks before it was officially detected in Italy.

According to Kekule, about 99.5 per cent of the coronavirus spreading all over the world is a kind of variant mutating in north Italy, which is more aggressive than the Wuhan variant.

Italy reported its first indigenous COVID-19 case on February 21 in a little town near Milan, the northern region of Lombardy.

According to Johns Hopkins University, the southern European country has registered over 1.8 million confirmed cases and over 60,000 deaths from the virus so far.