“Covid-19 was already spreading in France in late December 2019, a month before the official first cases in the country,” the team at Groupe Hospitalier Paris Seine in Saint-Denis wrote in a study published Sunday in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents.
Intensive care specialist Dr. Yves Cohen and his hospital colleagues wrote that they decided to check the records of earlier patients, in case the virus had been spreading undetected.
The French team looked at people admitted to the hospital with flu-like illness between December 2 and January 16 who were not ultimately diagnosed with influenza. They tested frozen samples from those patients for coronavirus.
The man had not been to China, and one of his children had also been sick, the team reported.
“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. 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,” they wrote.
Europe did not start reporting cases of coronavirus until January. In Italy, the European country hit hardest by the virus, the first two cases were reported on Jan 31, in two Chinese tourists in Rome. The first known community transmission was recorded at the end of February in Codogno, northern Italy.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect when the study was published online.