The novel coronavirus was circulating in Italy since September last year, a study by the National Cancer Institute of the Italian city of Milan showed, signaling that COVID-19 might have spread beyond China earlier than previously thought.
The WHO has said the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, the respiratory disease it causes, were unknown before the outbreak was first reported in Wuhan, China, in December.
Italy’s first COVID-19 patient was detected on Feb. 21 in a little town near Milan, in the northern region of Lombardy.
However, the Italian researchers’ findings, published by the institute’s scientific magazine Tumori Journal, show that 11.6 percent of 959 healthy volunteers enrolled in a lung cancer screening trial between September and March had developed coronavirus antibodies well before February.
A further specific SARS-CoV-2 antibody test was carried out by the University of Siena for the same research titled “Unexpected detection of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in the pre-pandemic period in Italy.”
It showed that four cases dated back to the first week of October were also positive for antibodies neutralizing the virus, meaning they had been infected in September, said Giovanni Apolone, a co-author of the study.
“This is the main finding: People with no symptoms not only were positive after the serological tests, but had also antibodies able to kill the virus,” Apolone said.
“It means that the new coronavirus can circulate among the population for long and with a low rate of lethality not because it is disappearing but only to surge again,” he said.
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