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A new study of blood samples collected in Italy as early as October 2019 has given rise to suggestions the virus was circulating in Europe before the first case was confirmed by Beijing. Scientists from Milan’s Istituto Nazionale Tumori, a cancer research centre, retested a number pre-pandemic blood samples that were found to have antibodies normally associated with COVID-19 infection. The findings were published in a new paper on Monday.
Giovani Apolone, one of the researchers, told the FT: “The results of this retesting suggest what we previously reported in asymptomatic patients is a plausible signal of early circulation of the virus in Italy.
“If this is confirmed, this would explain the explosion of symptomatic cases observed in Italy in 2020.
“Sars-Cov-2, or an earlier version, circulated silently, under the surface.”
Italian researchers originally screened 959 individuals for lung cancer before the pandemic.
Last year they tested the samples, looking for coronavirus-linked antibodies, and claimed they had found traces of the deadly disease.
The World Health Organisation requested the samples to once again be retested at the VisMederi laboratory in Siena, Italy and a WHO-affiliated facility at Erasmus University in the Netherlands.
Marion Koopmans, head of virology at Eramus, said the new results were “interesting”.
But she warned that while there was some evidence of antibodies the samples did not return conclusive evidence of prior infection based on the university’s criteria.
She said: “We use a rather stringent threshold and cannot rule out that some of the observed reactivity is real.
“However, for confirmation of earlier circulation we would recommend studies of patients with unexplained illness for virological confirmation.”
The labs retested 29 of the Italian samples, some positive and some negative, along with 29 control cases from 2018.
From these tests, three were found by both Erasmus and VisMederi to have a positive reading for the Covid-linked antibody IgM.
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The presence of the antibody normally indicates a recent infection.
The earliest sample was collected on October 10, 2019.
Another sample from February 5, 2020, was found to be positive for so-called neutralising antibodies.
However, none of the samples contained antibodies to the levels that Erasmus requires to be considered proof of infection.
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Italian researcher Gabriella Sozzi suggested this could be because the early virus was less aggressive or contagious.
Ms Koopmans said the Erasmus criteria was necessary to conclusively state the pandemic started earlier than thought.
She said: “That does not mean it is impossible.
“Just that you would like to see other pieces of evidence.”
The Italian paper, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, did not question where the coronavirus originated.
But it will likely spark a fresh debate over whether COVID-19 was circulating in Italy or elsewhere before the first confirmed case in Wuhan in December 2019.
Other studies have placed the first European case as early as November 2019, including one in Milan.
The WHO said it was not part of the laboratory analysis and the results highlighted the challenge of conducting antibody tests on samples from 2019.
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