In Brief

Covid-19 circulating in Italy as early as September 2019, study reveals

New research suggests coronavirus may have spread through Europe undetected for several months

Coronavirus arrived in Italy five months earlier than previously thought, according to researchers who have found Covid-19 antibodies in blood samples taken from Italian people in October last year.

The country’s first official case of the virus “was detected on 21 February in a small town near Milan, in the northern region of Lombardy” says Reuters.

But new tests by the National Cancer Institute in Milan on blood samples given by subjects in a cancer trial imply that a significant number of people had already been infected before that date.

“Four cases dating back to the first week of October were positive for antibodies, meaning they had got infected in September,” institute director Giovanni Apolone, who co-authored the study, told the news agency.

The new research - outlined in a paper in the institute’s scientific magazine Tumori Journal - provides confirmation of what many had already suspected.

“Previously, Italian researchers have said that they reported a higher than usual number of cases of severe pneumonia and flu in Lombardy in the last quarter of 2019 - a sign the new coronavirus might have been present,” Sky News reports.

The Covid-19 virus was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December, but US researchers say that internet searches and satellite data showing hospital traffic suggest the epidemic may have started in late summer or early autumn.

Until now, Europe’s earliest case confirmed by blood test appeared to be a French patient who fell ill in December last year. However, the man had not travelled to China, which suggests the virus was already circulating in France by then.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that several French athletes who competed at the World Athletic Games in Wuhan last October may have contracted Covid.

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