France investigates suspected December coronavirus case
First cases in Europe were only detected in late January.
PARIS — The French government is seeking to determine whether a patient in a Paris hospital had COVID-19 in December, weeks before the first official cases were confirmed in Europe.
Professor Yves Cohen, an intensive care doctor in a suburban Paris hospital, told French TV on Sunday that one of his patients, hospitalized in December for pneumonia, had retroactively tested positive for COVID-19 on December 27, fueling speculation the virus might have been circulating in Europe much earlier than previously thought.
“The government is taking note [of the news] and is in touch with scientists and experts to try to confirm (or not) this discovery,” a spokesperson for the French health ministry said Monday in an email. “As a second step, we could consider more investigations if needed.”
If confirmed, the case would change the timeline for the circulation of the virus. China first reported a cluster of cases for a novel coronavirus to the World Health Organization on December 31. France announced the first two known cases of COVID-19 in Europe on January 24.
Cohen said his patient was one of 24 who were hospitalized for pneumonia in December and January in two hospitals in the Paris region — Jean-Verdier in Bondy and Avicenne in Bobigny — and whom his team decided to retroactively test for COVID-19.
Cohen said his team carried out so-called PCR tests on the patients at the time to detect the presence of the flu or other viruses. The team recently decided to test the patients’ samples to detect COVID-19.
“Out of 24 patients, we got one that tested positive for COVID-19 on December 27, when he was hospitalized at Jean-Verdier,” Cohen told BFM TV.
While the two French cases confirmed January 24 and a third confirmed soon after had traveled to China, that wasn’t the case for Cohen’s patient, according to BFM TV.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said it was aware of the French news and redirected questions to the French health ministry.
A European Commission official said the ECDC had not so far received reports of cases reclassified retrospectively in France or elsewhere in Europe.
Carmen Paun contributed reporting.