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WHO: "Not surprising" coronavirus reached Europe in late 2019

Coronavirus was present in Europe far earlier than initially thought and the WHO has urged countries to retest samples to better understand how and how extensively the virus has spread.

A man wearing a protective face mask walks past a placard with health and social distancing informations at a metro station of Paris transport network (RATP) during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Paris, France, May 5, 2020. REUTERS/

Doctors in France are investigating the possibility that Covid-19 made its way to Europe far earlier than initially thought after finding that a swab collected on 27 December 2019 was positive for coronavirus.

The swab was that of a 43-year-old man who had complained of a dry cough, fever, fatigue and severe breathing difficulties: symptoms common amongst those with coronavirus. The patient, Amirouche Hammar, initially believed he was suffering from the flu but after his condition worsened he went to hospital. After around two weeks of illness he made a full recovery.

This case came nearly a month before France’s first three official cases of COVID-19 were confirmed on 24 January. Of those, two had visited Wuhan and the third was a close family member. Mr Hammar had not travelled to the region and so his infection suggests the virus was in Europe earlier still. His wife, who has not reported any symptoms, works at a supermarket near an airport and it is thought that she may have become infected first.

Rethink needed on coronavirus time-scale

France was one of the earlier European nations to initiate a lockdown, closing all non-essential public places on 15 March and enforcing mandatory home confinement two days later. However, the news that coronavirus was in Europe as early as December 2019 may explain why European nations have reported some of the highest coronavirus death tolls in the world.

Following this revelation, the World Health Organization has urged countries to investigate potential early cases of coronavirus. WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told a UN briefing in Geneva on Tuesday that it was “not surprising” but that the information should give governments around the world “a whole new picture on everything.”

“It’s possible some of the infected people travelled from Wuhan to other countries at that time, and it’s also possible more early cases will be found as countries retest samples.”

The United States has also begun retesting patients for coronavirus and an autopsy in California has found that the state’s first case came a month earlier than previously thought. Previously, the earliest confirmed death in the US came on 26 February and the first in California on 4 March, but autopsies have showed that a Californian patient who died on 6 February had contracted Covid-19.

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