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French Doctors Find COVID-19 Case From December — A Month Before 1st Known Case There

A nurse in the Eugenie Hospital in Ajaccio, on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica, on April 23. France appears to have had its first case of COVID-19 in December, a month earlier than doctors thought.
Pascal Pochard-Casabianca
AFP via Getty Images
A nurse in the Eugenie Hospital in Ajaccio, on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica, on April 23. France appears to have had its first case of COVID-19 in December, a month earlier than doctors thought.

Researchers in France say that they have found evidence that the country had cases of the coronavirus a month earlier than was previously known.

The findings were announced in a pre-proof article in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents.

Dr. Yves Cohen, head of emergency medicine at Avicenne and Jean-Verdier hospitals near Paris, said that he and other doctors made the discovery after they retested samples from patients with influenza-like illnesses who had been in intensive care units between early December and mid-January.

"Among them we found 14 patients that were not diagnosed with pneumonia," Cohen told the BBC. "In April, we defrosted the samples we had stored, and we tested them again, but this time for traces of COVID-19."

They found that one patient's sample did test positive for COVID-19. The doctors tested the sample again using another technique, and that one also came back positive. "We looked again at the chest scan of the patient and we saw that the image was compatible with COVID-19 symptoms," Cohen told the broadcaster.

The patient was a 43-year-old man named Amirouche Hammar. He's an Algerian-born fishmonger who lives in Bobigny, in the northeast suburbs of Paris. He hadn't traveled since visiting Algeria in August 2019, and he has no known connection to China. His two children had also fallen ill when he did, though his wife did not. All of them are now reportedly doing fine.

Hammar was tested on Dec. 27. Because the symptoms of COVID-19 typically take five to 14 days to appear, Cohen believes Hammar was infected between Dec. 14 and Dec. 22.

"It tells us that the virus existed in France in December," Cohen says. "This is important because to fight a virus, you need to know its life cycle. So this case will allow us to better understand the evolution of the virus on French soil."

Cohen says researchers will now study the genetic code of the virus that infected Hammar, to see if it can be linked to other samples analyzed in China. If a link is found to a different kind of coronavirus than was previously identified in France, it would have important implications, he said: "It would point to different contamination sources worldwide."

The article's authors note that it is possible there were false negatives in the samples they tested, and that there could be other cases among patients who were not in the ICU, and thus were not analyzed.

Jonathan Ball, a professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, told The Associated Press that the positive sample could have been contaminated in the lab.

"If he was infected (with COVID-19), then you would expect a more rapid and earlier spread of the virus in France than was seen," Ball, who was not connected to the study, said in a statement to the news service. "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."

If the positive case is accurate, this would not be the first time that the coronavirus timeline has been rewritten.

Two weeks ago, officials in Santa Clara County, Calif., announced that three people had been posthumously identified as dying with COVID-19 — including one who died on Feb. 6. That's nearly three weeks earlier than deaths in Washington state that had been believed to be the United States' first from the coronavirus.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.