A man walks past coronavirus artwork in Milan – Reuters
A four-year-old Italian boy contracted Covid-19 as far back as November last year, Italian scientists believe, in a discovery that could dramatically rewrite the timeline of the spread of the illness.
The finding would suggest that the coronavirus was circulating in Italy much earlier than expected – the pandemic was not officially detected until late February.
It could fundamentally alter the understanding of when the virus entered Europe from China, where it is thought to have originated. Until now, it was thought that Europe’s earliest detected case was a 43-year-old Frenchman from Paris who fell ill in late December.
“This finding is of importance because it expands our knowledge on timing and mapping of the SARS-CoV-2 transmission pathways,” the researchers said.
“Long-term, unrecognized spread of SARS-CoV-2 in northern Italy would help explain, at least in part, the devastating impact and rapid course of the first wave of COVID-19 in Lombardy.”
The little boy, from a town near Milan in the Lombardy region, began to feel ill on November 21, suffering from flu-like symptoms and a rash, and it was initially thought that he was suffering from measles.
This image of an exhausted Italian nurse, taken during the first wave of the pandemic, came to symbolise the terrible impact of the virus
But a subsequent swab, taken in December, revealed the presence of the Covid-19 virus, according to a study by Milan State University which was published in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases.
It suggests that the boy is Italy’s true “patient zero”, rather than a middle-aged man from the northern town of Codogno who was found to be infected with Covid-19 in February.
The swab was one of 39 retrospectively tested by the researchers, who initiated the study after noticing that many patients who were thought to be suffering from measles did not in fact have the illness, suggesting they had contracted something else.
The finding would push back by three months the emergence of Covid-19 in Italy, the first Western country to be hard hit by the virus.
The boy had not traveled abroad around the time he fell ill, suggesting he contracted it in Italy.
The research is likely to be seized on by China, which has been aggressively pushing the theory that the virus did not originate in Wuhan.
Beijing has been accused by the international community of covering up exactly when and where the virus emerged.
The finding may not mean that the virus did not originate in China – just that it was circulating there much earlier than thought and was then brought to Italy.
Northern Italy, with its fashion, furniture, car and design sectors, has strong travel and trade links with China.
“The first known Covid-19 case in Italy was reported in the town of Codogno in the Lombardy region on February 21, 2020. However, some evidence suggests that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) had been circulating unnoticed for several weeks in Lombardy before the first official detection,” the scientists wrote in their paper.
“Phylogenetic studies highlighted an early circulation of SARS-CoV-2 in Italy and suggest multiple introductions of the virus from China and Germany, followed by an autochthonous transmission.”
Last month, a study suggested the virus may have entered Italy as early as September last year, while a third study found traces of the virus in untreated sewage water in Milan and Turin in December.
Italy’s death toll from the coronavirus is now close to 62,000 – the second highest number in Europe after the UK.