Hunt for mystery Italian ‘Covid Patient Zero’


A World Health Organization-led team studying the origins of Covid-19 have turned their attention to the case of a mystery Italian woman.

The 25-year-old visited a Milan hospital complaining of a sore throat and skin lesions in November 2019 – a month before Covid-19 would be identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Research published in January this year found that a skin sample left by the woman yielded traces of the coronavirus when it was tested more than six months later. 

Scientists say the woman’s case suggests that the virus was circulating in China and elsewhere long before the first cluster exploded at Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market in December 2019, and further study of her case could help to determine just how long.

The only problem is that no one knows the woman’s identity.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the facilities that oversaw her case – Milan’s Policlinico hospital and the University of Milan – say they do not have her details, while Raffaele Gianotti, the dermatologist who treated her, died in March just days before the WHO-led team requested more research into the patient.

The team has recommended searching for possible Covid-19 cases in other countries that predate the first confirmed Wuhan case. 

A World Health Organization-led team studying the origins of Covid-19 have turned their attention to the case of a 25-year-old Italian woman whose identity is unknown. Pictured L-R: Researchers Giovanni Fellegara, Raffaele Gianotti and Massimo Barberis

Researchers say examining earlier suspected cases could help firm up a timeline of the early spread of the virus.  

To do this, the team has asked blood banks in several countries to test samples from late 2019 for the presence of coronavirus antibodies. 

Several studies have suggested that individuals were infected with Covid-19 before the first cases of the virus were reported in their areas but the Italian woman’s case remains one of the most intriguing.

A blood test taken from the woman in June 2020 tested positive for coronavirus antibodies. 

Months earlier, on November 10, 2019, a skin sample was taken from the woman by Dr. Gianotti. 

When the pandemic hit Italy in early 2020, Dr. Gianotti looked back through archived skin samples searching for any trace of Covid-19, the Wall Street Journal reported. 

He conducted two tests on the woman’s skin sample, both of which found the spike protein and protein shell but the sample was too degraded to conduct a crucial third test.

Scientists say the mystery woman's case suggests that the virus was circulating in China and elsewhere long before the first cluster exploded at Wuhan's Huanan seafood market in December 2019, and further study of her case could help to determine just how long [Stock image]

Scientists say the mystery woman’s case suggests that the virus was circulating in China and elsewhere long before the first cluster exploded at Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market in December 2019, and further study of her case could help to determine just how long [Stock image]

This test would have allowed Dr. Gianotti to genetically sequence the virus, providing a more definitive confirmation that the woman had indeed had Covid-19 and potentially allowing researchers to compare it with cases from China. 

‘I was disappointed for only one thing. That we cannot confirm it with another, third technique,’ Massimo Barberis, a co-author on Dr. Gianotti’s research, told the Wall Street Journal. 

Dr. Barberis pointed out that, while the woman’s blood taken in mid-2020 tested positive for antibodies, Covid-19 had engulfed northern Italy by that time, creating the possibility that she might have been exposed to an asymptomatic infection some time after her November illness.

While the woman’s identity remains a mystery, Dr. Barberis said he believes enthusiasm for figuring out how the pandemic began is fading among researchers as the virus fades in Europe.

‘People are not interested,’ he told the Wall Street Journal.

Despite the potentially dampening enthusiasm, research continues into the source of Covid-19.

Last week, a group of scientists who rejected the theory that the virus leaked from a Wuhan laboratory doubled down on their claim in a letter. 

The international coalition of experts said there was still ‘no scientifically validated evidence’ to support the so-called ‘lab leak theory’.

The mainstream school of thought is that the coronavirus first emerged in bats and jumped to a host species before finally being passed to humans. However some believe the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (pictured), which denies this

The mainstream school of thought is that the coronavirus first emerged in bats and jumped to a host species before finally being passed to humans. However some believe the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (pictured), which denies this

Signatories include Dr Peter Daszak, the British president of EcoHealth Alliance, which funnelled money into research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and UK Government scientific adviser Sir Jeremy Farrar.

The letter, published in the Lancet, followed a piece in the same journal last February, which stated that the lab leak theory created ‘fear’ and ‘prejudice’.

It has been heavily criticised in recent weeks after it emerged that at least one of the signatories had undisclosed financial ties to the Wuhan lab.

Twenty-four of the scientists who signed last year’s letter have also put their name to the new edition, which said ‘allegations are of no help’ and that the ‘strongest clue’ about the origin of the virus points to it evolving in nature. 

But three did not appear on the recent update, including Professor Peter Palese who previously told MailOnline a ‘lot of disturbing information’ had surfaced since the letter and he wanted ‘to see answers covering all questions’. 

The mainstream school of thought is that the coronavirus first emerged in bats and jumped to a host species before finally being passed to humans.  

However some believe the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which denies this.

DID COVID LEAK FROM A WUHAN LAB? THE EVIDENCE FOR AND AGAINST 

Evidence for Wuhan lab-leak theory

An article in the respected Science journal on May 14 kick-started the recent surge in interest for the lab-leak theory.

Some 18 experts wrote in the journal that ‘we must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data’.

Later that month, a study by British Professor Angus Dalgleish and Norwegian scientist Dr Birger Sørensen claimed it had ‘prima facie evidence of retro-engineering in China‘ for a year.

The study included accusations of ‘deliberate destruction, concealment or contamination of data’ at Chinese labs.

It followed statements from the WHO Director General, US and EU that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve. 

Previously, the theory had been dismissed as conspiracy by most experts, partly because of its association with President Donald Trump.

President Joe Biden in May ordered a full investigation into the origin of the pandemic virus and demanded scientists work out whether there is truth to the theory.

The head of the World Health Organization insisted just a day earlier that the theory that Covid emerged from a Wuhan lab has not been ruled out — as he said China should help solve the mystery out of ‘respect’ for the dead.  

The body’s director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, suggested that Beijing had not cooperated fully as he urged more ‘transparency’ in the continuing investigation. 

Evidence against the theory 

Several other sects of the scientific community continue to suggest the virus could only be natural in origin.

A series of recent papers pointed to the virus evolving in animals before being transmitted to humans, in the same way as all other previously discovered coronaviruses.

The first study, published in Scientific Reports, showed some 47,000 wild animals from 38 species were sold across four markets in Wuhan between May 2017 and November 2019.

The authors, including Dr Chris Newman, an evolutionary ecologist at Oxford University, claimed the evidence showed the conditions for animal-to-human transmission were in place in Wuhan.

But they acknowledged there was no proof Sars-CoV-2 was present or originated in any of these animals.

A joint World Health Organization-China investigation also concluded it was ‘very likely’ the virus jumped from bats to humans via an as-yet-unknown intermediary animal.



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