COVID Spread To Europe Months Before China Reported It, Study Claims

Scientists in Italy believe COVID-19 may have been circulating in the country since September last year, suggesting the virus spread beyond China months earlier than previously thought.

According to the World Health Organization, an outbreak of the disease now known as COVID-19 was first reported in Wuhan, in central China, in December. Italy's first COVID patient was detected on February 21 in a town near Milan, in the northern region of Lombardy.

But a study by the researchers at the National Cancer Institute in Milan found COVID-19 antibodies in blood samples from as early as September last year. The findings "may reshape the history of the pandemic," the researchers said.

The study, published in the scientific magazine Tumori Journal, examined the blood samples of nearly 1,000 people – all asymptomatic – who were volunteers of a cancer trial between September 2019 and March 2020 in Milan, the city at the epicenter of Italy's first wave.

It found that more than 11 percent had developed coronavirus antibodies specific to the new COVID - SARS-CoV-2 - well before February, including 14 percent from blood samples taken in September last year. Around 30 percent of the antibodies detected were from the second week of February when the virus started to grip Lombardy, the scientists found.

"This study shows an unexpected very early circulation of SARS-CoV-2 among asymptomatic individuals in Italy several months before the first patient was identified," the study authors wrote. "Finding SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in asymptomatic people before the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy may reshape the history of the pandemic."

It is not the first time scientists have found evidence of the existence of COVID far earlier than previously thought. Italian researchers in March said a higher than usual number of cases of severe pneumonia and flu were recorded in Lombardy in the last quarter of 2019, suggesting the virus may have been circulating then.

In May, a hospital in France said it had treated someone with Covid-19 around a month before the first cases were officially reported in Europe. Dr. Yves Cohen, head of resuscitation at the Avicenne and Jean Verdier hospitals in the suburbs of Paris, said scientists had retested old samples from 24 patients treated for pneumonia in December and January, who tested negative for the flu. One patient, from a sample taken on December 27, came back positive for COVID-19, he told BFM TV.

Workers in PPE transport COVID patients
Red Cross workers in full PPE transport COVID-19 patients in Turin, Italy on November 13, as cases surge Getty/Diego Puletto

The first confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.K. were on January 29, when two Chinese nationals fell ill at a hotel in York, northeast England. A woman, 75, from Nottinghamshire, is believed to have been the earliest known person to contract COVID-19 within the UK, after testing positive on February 21.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the first U.S. cases of nontravel–related COVID-19 were confirmed on February 26 and 28, 2020, suggesting that community transmission was also occurring by late February within the U.S.

Andrew Brouwer, assistant research scientist in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan, told Newsweek earlier this year: "It is very plausible—and even probable—that the coronavirus was beginning to spread long before the first cases were reported."

According to Johns Hopkins University, more than 54 million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 across the globe, over 1.3 million people have died, and more than 35 million have survived.