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Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, Italy became the first European country hit devastatingly hard by the deadly respiratory disease, which ravaged much of the country’s Lombardy region. To date, the country holds the second-highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe behind the UK, according to the Worldometer database.
A new report recently published by the US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has indicated that the very first cases of COVID-19 emerged in Italy at the end of November 2019, some three months before a case was officially confirmed by officials.
Analyzing oral swab specimens collected from 39 consenting patients between September 2019 and February 2020, researchers discovered that all but one sample came back positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Upon further investigation, officials determined that the first COVID-19 case within Italy was documented in a 4-year-old boy who lived outside of Milan, the tourist hotspot that quickly became a hotbed for the respiratory disease at the onset of the pandemic.
Officials noted in the report that the child was first taken to health experts for a cough and rhinitis – two symptoms associated with COVID-19 – on November 21 before being taken to the emergency room a week later after suffering from respiratory complications and vomiting. The next day, the child exhibited a rash, which doctors believed to be measles-like; however, a test came back negative for the infectious disease.
The report also details that the unidentified child had no reported travel history, which suggests that the virus was already present and spreading within the Lombardy region at the time. It’s unclear how the child’s treatment progressed and if he exhibited any other severe symptoms, since the sample was not tested for COVID-19 until some time later.
“These findings, in agreement with other evidence of early COVID-19 spread in Europe, advance the beginning of the outbreak to late autumn 2019,” reads the report. “However, earlier strains also might have been occasionally imported to Italy and other countries in Europe during this period, manifesting with sporadic cases or small self-limiting clusters. These importations could have been different from the strain that became widespread in Italy during the first months of 2020.”
“This finding is of epidemiologic importance because it expands our knowledge on timing and mapping of the SARS-CoV-2 transmission pathways,” the report adds.
Prior to the latest development, researchers indicated that the first case in Italy was detected in a man from the Italian town of Codogno, about an hour’s drive from Milan, on February 21, 2020.
Earlier this year, two studies were released that contradicted Italy’s February timeline, with one body of work from June noting that scientists had found traces of SARS-CoV-2 in the country’s sewage system in mid-December 2019. The second study released in November, however, suggested that COVID-19 was thriving in Italy as early as September 2019.
The latest revelation comes as the CDC recently forecast that the number of COVID-19 deaths in the US, which has the highest case tally in the world, may total between 332,000 and 362,000 by the week ending January 2, 2021.