Was coronavirus already present in Italy in the fall?

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Italian researchers are looking at the higher than the usual number of cases of severe pneumonia and flu in Lombardy in the last three months of 2019, as they suspect that the new coronavirus may have spread beyond China earlier than previously thought.

Adriano Decarli, an Italian epidemiologist and professor of medical statistics at the University of Milan, said that the number of hospitalized patients with flu and pneumonia in the Milan and Lodi area increased significantly between October and December last year. According to Decarli, compared to previous years, hundreds more such cases appeared in the area at that time.

Decarli is now studying hospital records and reviewing clinical details of these cases to try and conclude whether coronavirus already spread in Italy sooner than previously thought.

“We want to know if the virus was already here in Italy at the end of 2019, and — if yes — why it remained undetected for a relatively long period, so that we could have a clearer picture in case we have to face a second wave of the epidemic,” the epidemiologist told Reuters.

After he is done with the research, the authorities might ask for permission to exhume bodies of people who died in the last year of symptoms tied to the coronavirus in the areas most affected by the epidemic.

The World Health Organization reports that coronavirus appeared in Wuhan, China, last December. Many experts also believe that the hypothesis that coronavirus might have spread in Europe by the end of 2019 is probably wrong.

“I think it extremely unlikely that the virus was present in Europe before January,” said Paul Hunter of Britain’s University of East Anglia.

According to him, it is clear that if the virus had spread in Europe last year, the current situation would look quite different, and there would be an epidemic of enormous proportions. Hunter further said that his Italian colleagues can only back their hypothesis by laboratory tests of samples obtained at the time of the alleged start of the epidemic.

Although Italy reported the first case of coronavirus on Jan. 31 of two Chinese tourists from Wuhan who had been in the country since Jan. 23, it is clear that coronavirus had probably started to spread in the country a month earlier.

Giuseppe Remuzzi, director of the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan, confirmed that general practitioners in Lombardy had reported unusual cases of pneumonia last year. For example, in the areas of Gera D’Adda and Crema, they had several patients with bilateral pneumonia, cough, shortness of breath, and fever, all the symptoms of COVID-19.

“None of these cases have been documented as COVID-19 because there was no evidence yet of the existence of COVID-19,” Remuzzi said, adding that if the hypothesis of Italian researchers proves to be true, it would mean that the virus can go undetected for months.

Title image: In this March 21, 2020 file photo, coffins are downloaded at the Ferrara cemetery, northern Italy, from a military convoy coming from Bergamo, a city at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy. (Massimo Paolone/LaPresse via AP, file)

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