WHO urges governments to probe initial Covid-19 casesArchive
GENEVA: The World Health Organisation said on Tuesday that a report that Covid-19 had emerged in December in France, sooner than previously thought, was “not surprising”, and urged countries to investigate any other early suspicious cases.
The disease later identified as Covid-19 was first reported by Chinese authorities to the WHO on Dec 31 and was not previously believed to have spread to Europe until January.
“This gives a whole new picture on everything,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a UN briefing in Geneva, referring to the French reports.
“The findings help to better understand the potential virus circulation of Covid-19,” he added, saying other possible earlier cases could emerge after retesting samples.
A French hospital which has retested old samples from pneumonia patients discovered that it treated a man who had Covid-19 as early as Dec 27, nearly a month before the French government confirmed its first cases.
The study by French scientists could be important in assessing when and where the new coronavirus emerged, experts said on Tuesday.
The French researchers led by Yves Cohen, head of resuscitation at the Avicenne and Jean Verdier hospitals, retested samples from 24 patients treated in December and January who had tested negative for flu before Covid-19 developed into a pandemic.
The results, published in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents, showed that one patient — a 42-year-old man born in Algeria, who had lived in France for many years and worked as a fishmonger — was infected with Covid-19 “one month before the first reported cases in our country”, they said.
Independent experts said the findings needed more investigation.
“It’s not impossible that it was an early introduction, but the evidence isn’t conclusive by any means,” said Jonathan Ball, a professor of molecular virology at Britain’s University of Nottingham.
Stephen Griffin, an expert at the University of Leeds’ Institute of Medical Research, said it was “a potentially important finding” and added: “We must be cautious when interpreting these findings.” Cohen told French television on Monday it was too early to know if the patient, whose last trip to Algeria had been in August 2019, was France’s “patient zero”.
But “identifying the first infected patient is of great epidemiological interest as it changes dramatically our knowledge regarding SARS-COV-2 (the new coronavirus) and its spreading in the country,” he and his co-researchers wrote in the paper detailing their findings.
They said the absence of a link with China and the lack of recent travel “suggest that the disease was already spreading among the French population at the end of December 2019”.
Published in Dawn, May 6th, 2020