French doctors say first virus case might have been in December

French scientists say they might have identified a possible case of coronavirus dating back to December — about a month before the first cases were officially confirmed in Europe.

In a study published in the International Journal of Microbial Agents, doctors at a hospital north of Paris reviewed retrospective samples of 14 patients treated for atypical pneumonia between early December and mid-January.

Among them were the records of Amirouche Hammar, a 42-year-old fishmonger who has lived in France for years and had no recent travel history.

He told French broadcaster BFM-TV that he drove himself to a hospital emergency unit one morning in late December because he felt very sick, with chest pains and breathing difficulties.

“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.

Identifying the first infected patient is of great epidemiological interest as it changes dramatically our knowledge

He was admitted with symptoms doctors say were consistent with Covid-19 patients in China and Italy. When doctors retested his old sample, they found it was positive for coronavirus.

“Identifying the first infected patient is of great epidemiological interest as it changes dramatically our knowledge,” wrote Yves Cohen, one of the French researchers.

The intensive care specialist works in the northern suburbs of Paris where Mr Hammar lives and which have been particularly hard-hit by Covid-19 infections and deaths.

There does not appear to have been any further transmission of the virus from Mr Hammar, who later recovered.

Dr Cohen and colleagues suggested their results showed there could be many other unidentified coronavirus cases from before the disease was officially detected in Europe.

They acknowledged that because the study was done retrospectively, “medical records were not exhaustive and some relevant information might have been missing”.

Other experts said the results were interesting but hardly conclusive.

Jonathan Ball, a professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, said it was possible the results were due to lab contamination.

“If he was infected, then you would expect a more rapid and earlier spread of the virus in France than was seen,” he said in a statement.

“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.

Doctors in Italy have also reported finding retrospective cases of coronavirus long before the disease was officially identified.