Did Covid-19 start in Italy? Chinese scientist says virus was first detected in Wuhan but didn't originate there

Zeng Guang, former chief epidemiologist with the Chinese CDC, cited an Italian study which suggests that Covid-19 was circulating in Italy in September 2019, months before it was reported in Wuhan in December 2019


                            Did Covid-19 start in Italy? Chinese scientist says virus was first detected in Wuhan but didn't originate there
(Getty Images)

Over 10 months have passed since the novel coronavirus was identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and a global debate over how the pandemic began has existed for nearly as long. Zeng Guang, former chief epidemiologist with the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now claims that Covid-19 did not originate in China. He cited a study by the National Cancer Institute (INT) of the Italian city of Milan, which suggested that Covid-19 was circulating in Italy in September 2019, months before it was reported in Wuhan in December 2019. According to Guang, the virus was, however, first detected in China thanks to the monitoring system that was built in the country after the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak.

“Wuhan was where the coronavirus was first detected but it was not where it originated. China has built a world-leading monitoring system to report unknown pneumonia since the outbreak of Sars in 2003. We always stay on high alert. Thanks to this system, we are able to become the first in the world to identify Covid-19,” Guang told an online academic conference, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP). 

The theory that the virus originated elsewhere has been echoed by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, who, according to The Times (UK), said, “This (referring to the Italian study) once again shows that tracing the virus’s source is a complex scientific question that should be left to scientists. (It) is a developing process that can involve multiple countries.” 

A similar suggestion was also made recently by Wu Zunyou, the current chief epidemiologist of the Chinese CDC. Zunyou recently claimed that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, could have entered China via imports of frozen seafood or meat products. The WHO, however, maintains that it is “highly unlikely that people can contract Covid-19 from food or food packaging.” 

According to the timeline of WHO’s response to Covid-19, on December 31, 2019, the agency’s country office in China picked up a media statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission from their website on cases of “viral pneumonia” in Wuhan. On January 9, the WHO reported that Chinese authorities have determined that the outbreak is caused by a novel coronavirus. 

On January 9, the WHO reported that Chinese authorities have determined that the outbreak is caused by a novel coronavirus (Getty Images)

A World Health Organization (WHO) is currently investigating the origins of the coronavirus. “China will continue taking part in global scientific research in tracing the origin and transmission route of the virus, and work with the rest of the international community to contribute to global cooperation on fighting Covid-19 and other viruses,” Lijian stated.

What did the Italian study find?

According to official records, Italy’s first two coronavirus cases were recorded on January 30, 2020, when two tourists from China tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 in Rome. The first laboratory-confirmed Italian Covid-19 case was identified in Lombardy on February 20, 2020, in a 38-year-old man who had no history of possible contacts with positive cases in Italy or abroad. Within a few days, additional coronavirus infections were recorded in the surrounding area. Based on the first case identification, it was hypothesized that the virus had been circulating in Italy since January 2020.

The latest Italian study, however, says that Covid-19 may have emerged in Italy much earlier than previously believed. The Italian researchers show that 11,6% of 959 healthy volunteers enrolled in a lung cancer screening trial between September 2019 and March 2020, had developed coronavirus antibodies well before February. A further SARS-CoV-2 antibodies test was carried out, which revealed that four cases dated back to the first week of October were also positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, indicating they had got infected in September.

The paper titled “Unexpected detection of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in the pre-pandemic period in Italy” has been published in the Tumori Journal. “We investigated the presence of SARS-CoV-2 receptor-binding domain (RBD)-specific antibodies in blood samples of 959 asymptomatic individuals enrolled in a prospective lung cancer screening trial between September 2019 and March 2020 to track the date of onset, frequency, and temporal and geographic variations across the Italian regions. SARS-CoV-2 antibodies were detected in 111 of 959 (11.6%) individuals, starting from September 2019 (14%), with a cluster of positive cases (greater than 30%) in the second week of February 2020 and the highest number (53.2%) in Lombardy,” write authors. 

The team says that the results indicate that SARS-CoV-2 “circulated in Italy earlier than the first official Covid-19 cases were diagnosed in Lombardy, even long before the first official reports from the Chinese authorities, casting new light on the onset and spread” of coronavirus pandemic. “This study shows an unexpected very early circulation of SARS-CoV-2 among asymptomatic individuals in Italy several months before the first patient was identified, and clarifies the onset and spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. Finding SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in asymptomatic people before the Covid-19 outbreak in Italy may reshape the history of the pandemic,” they conclude. 

However, according to the research team, their analysis does not dispute the origins of coronavirus. “These findings simply document that the epidemic in China was not detected in time,” Giovanni Apolone, scientific director of the INT and a co-author of the study, told a news conference in Milan, reports Reuters. Rubbishing Lijian’s claims, Apolone told The Times (UK), “We know that China delayed announcing its outbreak so there is no telling when it started there.” 

For more information and statistics on the coronavirus pandemic, click on the Newsbreak tracker here