China didn’t alert the world about the mysterious virus circulating in Wuhan — the city at the centre of the pandemic — until December 2019.
Beijing officials have insisted the virus originated in mid-December. But a mountain of studies have since poked holes in the claim.
Now, re-testing of dozens of blood samples of Italian patients suggest the infection was widespread in Italy months before anyone knew about the virus.
Results showed the blood of one cancer patient — originally taken in October 2019 — contained Covid-fighting antibodies.
Experts said their finding ‘is a plausible signal’ the virus was circulating much earlier than previously thought but said other evidence is needed to prove it.
Only low levels of the antibodies were spotted, making it hard to conclude that the patients definitely had Covid at the time.
Scientists in Milan admitted the findings may have been false positives, and experts not involved in the study suggested the other coronaviruses in circulation at the time may have triggered the immune response.
Covid didn’t officially reach Europe until February last year — but the true timings of the pandemic remain under heavy scrutiny.
A debate is also raging over the source of Covid, with China repeatedly insisting the virus naturally spilled over into humans from bats. But observers claim it’s possible the virus somehow leaked from the high-tech laboratory in the centre of Wuhan.
While China has tried to insist the virus originated elsewhere, academics, politicians and the media have contemplated the possibility it leaked from a high-level biochemical lab in Wuhan – raising suspicions that Chinese officials simply hid evidence of the early spread
Academics at Istituto Nazionale Tumori initially screened blood samples from 959 patients to check for lung cancer.
They re-tested the same samples last year to look for traces of the virus, and found 111 did contain Covid antibodies.
The World Health Organization subsequently asked them to reanalyse the samples, the Financial Times reports.
Experts sent 29 of the samples — some of which were positive — to VisMederi lab in Italy, which is affiliated with the WHO, and Erasmus University in the Netherlands.
Researchers then compared the results against a similar number of control samples taken in 2018.
Academics at VisMederi and Erasmus both found three of the samples to be positive for IgM Covid antibodies — which often crop up within days of someone becoming infected.
DID COVID LEAK FROM A WUHAN LAB? THE EVIDENCE FOR AND AGAINST
Evidence for Wuhan lab-leak theory
An article in the respected Science journal on May 14 kick-started the recent surge in interest for the lab-leak theory.
Some 18 experts wrote in the journal that ‘we must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data’.
The study included accusations of ‘deliberate destruction, concealment or contamination of data’ at Chinese labs.
It followed statements from the WHO Director General, US and EU that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve.
Previously, the theory had been dismissed as conspiracy by most experts, partly because of its association with President Donald Trump.
President Joe Biden in May ordered a full investigation into the origin of the pandemic virus and demanded scientists work out whether there is truth to the theory.
The head of the World Health Organization insisted just a day earlier that the theory that Covid emerged from a Wuhan lab has not been ruled out — as he said China should help solve the mystery out of ‘respect’ for the dead.
The body’s director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, suggested that Beijing had not cooperated fully as he urged more ‘transparency’ in the continuing investigation.
Evidence against the theory
Several other sects of the scientific community continue to suggest the virus could only be natural in origin.
A series of recent papers pointed to the virus evolving in animals before being transmitted to humans, in the same way as all other previously discovered coronaviruses.
The first study, published in Scientific Reports, showed some 47,000 wild animals from 38 species were sold across four markets in Wuhan between May 2017 and November 2019.
The authors, including Dr Chris Newman, an evolutionary ecologist at Oxford University, claimed the evidence showed the conditions for animal-to-human transmission were in place in Wuhan.
But they acknowledged there was no proof Sars-CoV-2 was present or originated in any of these animals.
A joint World Health Organization-China investigation also concluded it was ‘very likely’ the virus jumped from bats to humans via an as-yet-unknown intermediary animal.
These samples were taken from cancer patients in Italy in October and November 2019 and February 2020.
But Erasmus said none of the samples contained sufficient quantities of three types of antibodies needed to confirm an infection from the coronavirus.
VisMederi found another nine samples to contain Covid antibodies but Erasmus said the levels spotted were well below the cut-off point.
Gabriella Sozzi, one of the researchers who originally examined the blood samples, said the virus may have been less aggressive or contagious early in the pandemic, so it is ‘necessary to use highly sensitive tests despite the risk of finding false positive cases’.
The experts said the results ‘do not at all suggest’ the virus originated in Italy.
But they do support other findings that the virus was likely spreading in China before the first case was officially identified.
They said their findings show the importance of investigating the early events in the pandemic to solve unanswered questions about the origin and timing of the outbreak.
Giovanni Apolone, scientific director at the Milan cancer research centre, told the FT: ‘The results of this retesting suggest that 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.’
Professor Marion Koopmans, a virologist at Erasmus, told the newspaper the results were ‘interesting’ and it is ‘not impossible’ the patients were infected with Covid.
But she said she’d ‘like to see other pieces of evidence’.
Professor Koopmans added: ‘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.’
Professor Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia who was not involved in the research, told the Telegraph the results are not conclusive evidence because the patients could have been infected with another type of coronavirus.
He said: ‘This paper is insufficient to prove that the virus was circulating in October.
‘That is not to exclude this as a possibility, just that the paper, though interesting, does not provide sufficient proof.
‘An evolutionary genetics study placed the timing of the first infection somewhere between 6 October 2019 – 11 December 2019 so widespread infection in October is extremely unlikely.’
Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, the study is not the first to suggest Covid was spreading before December 2019.
Researchers previously found Covid antibodies in Italy and France in November and December 2019. Meanwhile, blood tests in the US identified signals the virus was in the country by December 13.
Experts at the University of Kent identified November 17 as the most likely data Covid originated, but said it may have been circulating in China as early as October.
This was more than a month before the news of an ‘novel pneumonia’ outbreak at the Huanan Seafood Market, which was pinpointed as the ground zero of the pandemic.
Some experts now suspect the virus may have accidentally leaked from a high-level biosecurity laboratory in Wuhan.
Top scientists and Government officials in the UK and globally had publicly written off the ‘lab leak’ hypothesis as a conspiracy until recently.
But recent developments and revelations about the type of research that went on at the Wuhan lab has led to growing doubts about the virus’ origin.
Boris Johnson said last month that the possibility the virus escaped from the viral institute in Wuhan has not been ruled out.