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New Italy study adds to evidence that coronavirus was in-country months before first official case

Xinhua | Updated: 2021-01-13 10:25

A woman wearing a protective face shield travels on a subway as Italians prepare for tighter restrictions ahead of the weekend, as part of efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Rome, Italy January 8, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

ROME -- Evidence that the coronavirus circulated in Italy months before its first formal detection has continued to mount, after researchers at the University of Milan revealed that a skin biopsy on a 25-year-old woman showed the presence of the coronavirus in Italy in November 2019.

That evidence is added to earlier research, also from the University of Milan, which in December discovered coronavirus antibodies in a four-year-old boy who fell ill in late November 2019.

Additionally, Italy's National Cancer Institute said its research in November 2020 showed four Italian cancer test subjects had coronavirus antibodies in early October 2019, meaning they would have been infected in late September. That is three months before the first case of COVID-19 announced in China, and five months before the first official case in Italy in late February 2020.

In both of those cases, doctors and researchers told Xinhua that the evidence of the early detection of the coronavirus in Italy did not cast doubt on the origins of the virus. But it does help create a clearer picture of how the virus spread.

The latest data, which was published in the British Journal of Dermatology on Jan. 7, is based on the analysis of skin biopsies performed between September and November 2019. According to a statement from the University of Milan, skin pathologies can be a symptom of coronavirus infection in 5 to 10 percent of cases. So it is possible, the university said, the skin issue the 25-year-old woman sought treatment for was actually a symptom of the coronavirus.

That makes it similar to the earlier case involving the four-year-old boy, also in Milan, who was hospitalized after developing flu-like symptoms and a skin rash. The initial diagnosis for the boy was measles, an easily curable viral infection common in children.

There has been a speculation in Italian media that the presence of the coronavirus so much earlier could help explain reports of a particularly severe flu season in Milan between October and December 2019.

In a bulletin dated Dec. 24, 2019, a week before the first official case reported in Wuhan, Italy's Ministry of Health reported high levels of "unusual" strains of flu and pneumonia concentrated in the area around Milan and appearing in 17 of Italy's 20 regions.

On Jan. 7, 2020, Corriere della Sera, Italy's most widely-read newspaper, ran an article about inflammation in patients apparently caused by the "Pneumococcus bacterium," but noting that some cases seemed to be caused by a virus. The article said some hospitals in Milan had to use extra beds to accommodate the unusually high number of patients.

The latest developments come as COVID-19 cases continues to surge in Italy. On Tuesday, the country's Ministry of Health reported more than 14,000 new coronavirus infections and 616 new deaths over the previous 24 hours.

Since the start of the pandemic, Italy has recorded more than 2.3 million COVID-19 cases and nearly 80,000 deaths, making it one of the hardest-hit countries in the world.

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