COVID-19 in France since December, hospital test suggests

Researchers testing old samples found COVID-19 in a man treated a month before France confirmed its first cases.

Face Mask
Identifying the first virus carrier is critical to understanding how it spread [File: Bertrand Guay/AFP]

A male patient treated in a French hospital on December 27 had contracted COVID-19, researchers going back through old samples have discovered.

It means that coronavirus was already in France a month before the French government confirmed its first cases.

Scientists at the Avicenne and Jean Verdier hospitals in the northern suburbs of Paris have been retesting samples from patients treated for pneumonia in December and January.

“Of the 24, we had one who was positive for COVID-19 on December 27,” Yves Cohen, head of resuscitation, told BFM TV.

The samples had all initially been collected to detect flu using PCR tests, the same genetic screening process that can also be used to detect the presence of the novel coronavirus in patients.

Each sample was retested several times to ensure there were no errors, Cohen added.

France, which on Monday became the fifth country to exceed 25,000 deaths from the virus, confirmed its first three COVID-19 cases on January 24, including two patients in Paris and another in the southwestern city of Bordeaux.

Cohen said it was too early to know if the patient whose December 27 test was COVID-19 positive was France’s “patient zero”.

Identifying the first patent with a virus is critical to understanding how it is spread. Cohen said the patient had survived and that a preliminary investigation to trace the first contamination had been carried out.

“He was sick for 15 days and infected his two children, but not his wife, who works in a supermarket.

“He was amazed; he didn’t understand how he had been infected. We put the puzzle together and he had not made any trips. The only contact that he had was with his wife.”

The man’s wife worked alongside a sushi stand, close to colleagues of Chinese origin, Cohen said. It was not clear whether those colleagues had travelled to China, and the local health authority should investigate, he said. “We’re wondering whether she was asymptomatic,” he said.

“He may be the ‘patient zero’, but perhaps there are others in other regions.

“All the negative PCRs for pneumonia must be tested again. The virus was probably circulating [then],” he said.

Source: Reuters