French hospital retests old samples, discovers COVID-19 case from December

Coronavirus arrived in France more than a month than previously thought

coronavirus-reuters A woman wearing a protective face mask is seen at Gare du Nord railway station in Paris | Reuters

The novel coronavirus had landed in France more than a month than previously thought. A French hospital that retested old samples from pneumonia patients has discovered that it treated a man with the coronavirus as early as 27 December, nearly a month before the French government confirmed its first cases.

Yves Cohen, head of resuscitation at the Avicenne and Jean Verdier hospitals in the northern suburbs of Paris, told a local media that scientists had retested samples from 24 patients treated in December and January who tested negative for the flu. "Of the 24, we had one who was positive for COVID-19 on December 27," he told the news channel on Sunday. "We tested it two more times to make sure there was no mistake. And twice, it came back positive."

The patient, a man in his 50s who has since fully recovered, said he has no idea where he caught the virus as he had not been to any infected areas. "He was amazed, he didn't understand how he had been infected. We put the puzzle together and he had not made any trips. The only contact that he had was with his wife."

The man's wife worked alongside a Sushi stand, close to colleagues of Chinese origin, Cohen said. It was not clear whether those colleagues had travelled to China, and the local health authority should investigate, he said.

"We're wondering whether she was asymptomatic," he said.

"He may be the 'patient zero', but perhaps there are others in other regions. All the negative PCRs for pneumonia must be tested again. The virus was probably circulating (then)," he said.

Until now, the country's first three cases of coronavirus were confirmed on 24 January. Of those, two had been to Wuhan in China--where the outbreak was first detected--and the third was a close family member. 

Dr Cohen said he had alerted the National Health Agency (ARS), and was urging other virologists to re-test swabs in their hospitals for Covid-19. A full report is due later this week, and will be published by the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents, he added.

France, which has seen almost 25,000 people die from the virus since March 1, confirmed its first three COVID-19 cases on January 24, including two patients in Paris and another in the southwestern city of Bordeaux.