The coronavirus was already circulating in Italy in September last year, researchers said. This could destroy China's pandemic timeline.
Scientists in Milan claim they found antibodies caused by the coronavirus in blood samples taken from cancer patients in September 2019, five months before the first domestic transmission was documented.
If confirmed, the disease would spread from China to Europe months earlier than previously thought, raising serious questions about whether Beijing knew of the disease long before it was reported to the world.
China has been repeatedly accused of covering up early cases of the virus, which allowed the disease to spread internationally and lead to a pandemic that infected more than 54 million people and killed at least 1.3 million people.
Graph showing the number of new coronavirus deaths per day in Italy
Graph showing the number of new coronavirus cases per day in Italy
China first reported that "pneumonia of unknown cause" spread on December 31, 2019, which was concentrated in a fish market in Wuhan.
China's Official Timeline Against New Evidence
December 8th – Earliest date China recognized infection
December 31 – China reported pneumonia of unknown cause to the World Health Organization for the first time
January 1st – Wuhan fish market closed due to disinfection
11th January – China reported its first death
January 23 – Wuhan locked
31 January – WHO stated the outbreak of international concern as China admitted it has thousands of cases
February 23 – Italy reports a number of cases in the first major outbreak unrelated to travelers from China
March 2019 – Wastewater sample from Italy shows traces of viruses, findings are being examined
Sep – Blood samples taken in Milan contain Covid antibodies
Oct-Dec – Hundreds of pneumonia cases near Milan may be linked to viruses that scientists are studying
Nov – Wastewater samples from Florianópolis, Brazil suggest a virus was present and is being investigated
November 17th – Leaked documents suggest that a case was discovered in China that day
December 18th – Wastewater samples taken in Milan and Turin suggest that viruses were circulating in the cities
Jan 2020 – Wastewater samples from Barcelona suggest viruses were in the city
But Chinese medics then came forward and said they had warned of a new type of respiratory infection weeks earlier, which prompted Beijing to change the schedule – saying the first infection actually occurred on December 8th.
A study made by Chinese researchers but not approved by the government then put the date as December 1, while leaked documents indicated that the first cases were indeed discovered on November 17.
However, none of these cases were confirmed as "Patient Zero" – the first person to be infected with the virus – and left Beijing with questions about how, when and where the pandemic started on charges of cover-up.
The Italian study is far from the first to suggest that the coronavirus reached Europe much earlier than previously thought.
Researchers at the University of Milan are currently investigating "hundreds" of "pneumonia" and "flu" cases in the region since October 2019 that researchers believe may actually have been caused by the coronavirus.
Studies are also ongoing on wastewater samples from Milan and Turin, which found traces of the virus on December 18.
Another study of wastewater samples from Barcelona found traces of the disease in January 2020, more than a month before the city's first official fall.
The researchers even found traces of the disease in a sample from March 2019, although doubts about this result arise.
In Brazil, it was found that wastewater samples collected in the city of Florianópolis in November 2019 also contained traces of the virus. The results must also be confirmed.
"If it's just a result, you want more and more data, more studies, more samples to confirm and rule out a laboratory error or methodological problem," said Joan Ramon Villalbi of the Spanish Society for Public Health and Sanitation Administration.
"But it's definitely interesting, it's suggestive."
China has agreed to participate in a joint study with WHO that will examine the origins of the virus, including whether it is spreading earlier than previously thought.
Mattia Maestri was Italy's first known case of domestic coronavirus transmission. He was diagnosed on February 21st and has not been in China or in contact with any known case
The aim of the project, announced earlier this month, is to find out which animal was incubated with the disease before it spread to humans, when and where it first spread, and how it happened.
"It is important to understand how the epidemic began to prevent further virus introductions and … the introduction of new viruses in the future," a spokesman said.
The latest study, published by the National Cancer Institute's (INT) scientific magazine Tumori Journal, looked at blood samples taken from 959 people from a cancer study in Milan – the city at the epicenter of Italy's first wave.
The researchers found that the blood of 111 people contained antibodies specific for the new coronavirus – SARS-CoV-2.
Of these, 14 percent had antibodies in blood drawn in September 2019, the researchers claimed.
Another 30 percent of patients developed antibodies in February when the first wave of domestic infections was detected in Italy.
Another 50 percent of the patients then took up antibodies, all of which came from Lombardy, the then most severely affected region of Italy.
"This study shows an unexpected very early circulation of SARS-CoV-2 in asymptomatic individuals in Italy several months before the identification of the first patient," the authors wrote.
"Finding SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in asymptomatic people prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy could change the history of the pandemic."
Another specific SARS-CoV-2 antibody test was carried out by the University of Siena for the same study entitled "Unexpected detection of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in prepandemic in Italy".
It found that four cases from the first week of October were also positive for antibodies that neutralized the virus, which meant they had been infected in September, the study co-author Giovanni Apolone revealed.
Mr Apolone said, “This is the most important finding: people with no symptoms were not only positive after the serological tests, but they also had antibodies that could kill the virus.
"It means that the new coronavirus can circulate in the population for a long time and with a low mortality rate, not because it disappears, but only to swell again."
Joanne Rogers, 51, (left) from Colchester, Essex, and her daughter Lauren, 20. Ms. Rogers developed flu-like symptoms in late January and was later hospitalized
However, Professor Francois Balloux of University College London largely disapproved of the research, saying, “Unless far better evidence backs this up, the claim that COVID-19 was circulating in Italy in August can be safely ignored.
"Most of the evidence points to the emergence of SARSCoV2 around October / November 2019 in China and a spread to Europe (northern Italy) in November / December 2019."
Dr. Andrew Preston, an infectious disease expert at the University of Bath, said: "The number of positives suggests coronaviruses have been spreading in Italy as of September if their data is correct."
He said the data now needs to be checked against hospital admissions to see if there has been an increase in respiratory infections during that period.
If so, this would indicate that the disease is present.
"It raises interesting questions that would change our view of the start of this pandemic," he added.
The first known Covid-19 case to make it to the UK was an Essex cleaner who was only tested for the disease after spending 17 days in intensive care.
Joanne Rogers, 51, of Colchester, Essex, developed flu-like symptoms in late January and spent two weeks in bed at home with the mysterious illness before she was hospitalized.
At the time, February 15, covid-19 was still considered a distant virus that posed minimal risk to the UK public. Only nine people in the UK – Chinese students and those who had visited a French ski resort – were notified of Isolate by Public Health England.
Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell announced that the country likely had coronavirus cases as early as November last year.
He told the Swedish news agency TT: “Outside of Wuhan there was no spread (of infections) until we later saw them in Europe.
“But I think you could find isolated cases among Wuhan travelers who were there November through December last year. That doesn't sound strange at all, it sounds very natural. & # 39;
Amirouche Hammar (picture) showed himself to be a French patient who already suffered from coronavirus on December 27th
The country's first official coronavirus case was a woman in Jönköping who tested positive on January 31 after a trip to China. The woman has since recovered from the disease.
A doctor in France claimed the country saw its first coronavirus patient in December, weeks before its first officially registered case.
Dr. Yves Cohen, head of resuscitation at several hospitals in Ile-de-France, Paris, said new tests on patient samples confirmed that the virus was in France shortly after Christmas 2019.
His team rechecked negative tests for coronavirus and flu on 24 patients hospitalized with respiratory symptoms in December and January – one of whom tested positive for Covid-19.
Amirouche Hammar, 43, came forward after discovering that an old flu sample from him had tested positive for coronavirus on December 27, making him France's “patient zero”.
The Algerian-born fish market worker hadn't traveled to China, and the result suggests the virus spread well before Jan. 24, when the country confirmed its first case.
The great cover-up in China: Beijing punished Covid's whistleblower, claiming he was from the US – so what can we believe?
Doctors in China, including Li Wenliang, reported the existence of a new type of respiratory infection similar to SARS in early December last year.
But instead of making the reports public and warning the public, Chinese police pulled in Wenliang and eight of his colleagues who had reported the virus online for questioning.
Wenliang, who would later die from the virus, had to sign a document declaring the information he published as incorrect.
While China has been widely lauded for a draconian lockdown that helped slow the spread of the virus, the evidence suggests that the country could have acted much faster to prevent the spread.
Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the first Chinese medical professionals to report the existence of the new coronavirus, was forced by police to confess to spreading false data. He later died from the virus
Samples analyzed as early as December 26th indicated a new type of SARS was floating around, the Washington Post reported, but Wuhan was not locked into lockdown until January 22nd, almost a month later.
Wuhan's Mayor also admitted a mistake that allowed 5 million people to leave the city before the lockdown without being checked for the virus, which may have contributed to the spread of the virus.
Chinese authorities have also been reluctant to get any information about the country's “patient zero” – or the first person known to have contracted the virus.
While Beijing claims the first infection occurred on December 8, researchers have traced the virus back to at least December 1, and anecdotal evidence suggests it spread in November.
A lack of information about the first patient has left scientists still unclear how the disease made the leap from animals to humans.
Theories suggest that it could be carried by a bat or pangolin sold in a market in Wuhan and then eaten by someone, but this has not been confirmed.
Chinese authorities initially reported that the virus could not spread from person to person, despite evidence that it spread rapidly in Wuhan city, including doctors infected by patients.
This was used to justify the normal functioning of Wuhan City during a major CCP conference held between January 11th and 17th. The authorities did not request any new cases during this period.
China didn't confirm human-to-human transmission of the virus until late January, when large parts of Hubei province, including Wuhan, were locked down.
The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market (picture), which is believed to have triggered the coronavirus pandemic, was one of the largest markets in Wuhan with many customers every day
Although Wuhan's largest World Health Organization newspaper reported the existence of a "novel type of pneumonia" on December 31, it did not mention the virus until the week of January 20.
That meant people in the city were not taking precautions like social distancing to stop the spread.
It also meant that people had started to travel for the New Year holiday, which was due to start on January 24th, when millions of people visit relatives and continue to spread the virus.
In addition, China delayed reports suggesting that around 14 percent of patients who initially tested negative for the virus or who appeared to have recovered tested positive a second time, only confirming such cases in February.
This further hampered efforts to contain the virus early in places like Japan, where patients who tested negative on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship were allowed to leave – only to test positive later.
Beijing authorities were also slow to report the deaths of two doctors, including one who was killed on January 25, but whose death was not reported by state media until a month later.
The market closed on January 1 after dozens of workers there contracted the disease
Origin of the virus
Despite early admissions that the virus began in Wuhan city, China was later traced – even to the point that American troops transmitted the infection after visiting the province.
Lijian Zhao, a prominent official with the Chinese Foreign Ministry, tweeted the claim on March 12 without producing any evidence.
& # 39; When did Patient Zero start in the US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? ", He wrote.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused American military personnel of bringing the coronavirus to Wuhan
Referring to a military track and field tournament in Wuhan in October that US troops were participating in, he wrote: “It could be the US Army that brought the epidemic to Wuhan.
& # 39; Be transparent! Make your data public! The US owes us an explanation! & # 39;
In fact, America's "Patient Zero" was a man who traveled from China to Washington State on January 15th. The case was confirmed by the CDC six days later.
Chinese have also tried to advance the theory that the virus originated in Italy, the country with the highest number of deaths, by skewing a quote from an Italian doctor who suggested that the country's first cases may have appeared much earlier than thought.
Zhao spread the theory in a tweet with no evidence to support it
Giuseppe Remuzzi said he was investigating strange cases of pneumonia as early as December and November, months before the virus was known to have spread.
Chinese state media reported extensively on his comments while suggesting that the virus could have originated in Italy.
In fact, says Remuzzi, there can be no doubt that it started in Wuhan – but it could have spread out of the province and around the world sooner than thought.
China has reported a total of around 82,000 coronavirus infections and recently reported a domestic infection rate of zero for several days in a row – even if it eased the lockdown restrictions in places like Hubei.
But by its own account, the virus is still likely to spread – through people who have few or no symptoms.
Caixin, a Beijing-based company, reported that "a few to over 10 cases of covert infections of the virus are detected" in China every day, although this is not included in official data.
Meanwhile, foreign governments have despised China's infection reports that cannot be trusted.
Marco Rubio, a prominent Republican senator and former US presidential candidate, tweeted, "We have no idea how many cases China really has," after the US infection rate surpassed Beijing's official number.
"Without a doubt, it is way more than what they admit," he added.
Meanwhile, the UK government has also expressed doubts about China's reporting. Conservative minister and former prime minister candidate Michael Gove claimed the Communist Party could not be trusted.
"Some of the reports from China were not clear about the extent, nature and infectivity of this (virus)," he told the BBC.
Meanwhile, sources told the mail that China's true infection rate could be up to 40 times what reports had suggested.
Marco Rubio, a prominent Republican senator, said China's numbers are untrustworthy and far higher than reported
Doubts have also been raised about China's reported death toll from the virus, which is currently around 3,300.
Locals in the epicenter city of Wuhan have kept an eye on funeral directors since lockdown restrictions were partially lifted, claiming they “worked around the clock” to dispose of bodies.
China has reported 3,300 deaths from the virus, but social media users in Wuhan have suggested the toll could be more than 42,000
Social media posts estimate that crematoria issue 3,500 urns every day, while Caixin reports that a funeral home in town ordered 5,000 urns.
Locals believe the effort to dispose of the bodies began on March 23, and city authorities have announced that the trial will end on or around April 5.
That would mean approximately 42,000 urns were handed out during that period, ten times the number reported.
Chinese aid packages
As China brought its own coronavirus epidemic under control and the disease spread to the rest of the world, it tried to distinguish itself as a helpful neighbor by sending aid and supplies to countries in need like Italy.
While the Chinese Red Cross provided free equipment to the Italians, the country bought a large amount of what it received.
Meanwhile, officials in Spain said a number of coronavirus test kits bought from China were only 30 percent reliable – down from the 80 percent promised.
China has said it is ready to provide the world with much-needed help and supplies but has been accused of hoarding protective gear and selling test kits that don't work
China is also the world's largest manufacturer of single-use masks, which are worn to slow the spread of the virus by people in public.
As the disease gained traction in the country in January, China began limiting exports of the masks while buying up supplies from other countries, the New York Times reported.
Not only did China virtually halt all exports of masks, it also bought up 56 million masks and respirators from overseas while fears of a pandemic were still a long way off.
Despite reports from US mask makers at factories in Shanghai that have been effectively nationalized, China denies the existence of such a policy, saying it is "ready to step up international cooperation on the issue."
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