French researchers said they located a CCP virus patient in the country who contracted the illness in December 2019, about a month before the first reported case.
The possible case was found after doctors at a hospital near Paris looked at samples of 14 patients who were treated for pneumonia between December and January.
One of the samples came back positive for the CCP virus in multiple tests. The patient was identified as Amirouche Hammar, 42, a fishmonger from Algeria who last traveled there in August.
Hammar was admitted to an intensive care unit on Dec. 27, 2019 with symptoms including cough, headache, and fever. He was treated and discharged two days later, the researchers reported in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents.
Most patients who contract the CCP virus recover without hospital care and a significant number are discharged from hospitals after treatment.
Hammar told BFM-TV that he wasn’t traveling before he became ill. His wife works in a supermarket near an airport.
He said he woke up one morning and drove himself to the hospital because he was having difficulty breathing.
“They said, ‘Perhaps you have an infection, a pulmonary infection, although it’s not certain. But what you have is very serious, very serious, because you are coughing blood. It’s not normal flu,’” he said.
Researchers said the symptoms are consistent with COVID-19 patients in China and Italy. They tested the sample by two different techniques over multiple tests.
“Identifying the first infected patient is of great epidemiological interest as it changes dramatically our knowledge regarding SARS-COV-2 and its spreading in the country,” they wrote.
“Moreover, the absence of a link with China and the lack of recent travel suggest that the disease was already spreading among the French population at the end of December, 2019.”
The researchers said they couldn’t rule out false negative results because of the sensitivity of the testing and the storage techniques used.
Experts said the results weren’t definitive.
“If he was infected, then you would expect a more rapid and earlier spread of the virus in France than was seen,” said Jonathan Ball, a professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham.
The results may be due to lab contamination, Ball said.
“Sequencing any virus in the sample might give you insight into whether or not the virus truly was an early isolate or likely contamination, but it looks from the data that the amount of virus in the sample was low, so would be difficult to analyse further,” he said.
Rowland Kao, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, said the results don’t necessarily point to the virus spreading in Europe earlier than previously thought.
“There are likely to be many instances where, around the world, infected individuals have moved to an uninfected location, but no transmission occurred,” he said.
Christian Lindmeier, a spokesman for the World Health Organization, described the findings as “exciting news” and said they could help scientists better understand the evolution of the CCP virus.
“This gives us a whole new picture on everything, and yes of course, it would be great if all countries who have unspecified cases of pneumonia in the recent months, and even in December, and in even in November, would check them against COVID-19,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.