French scientists have identified the earliest-known case of COVID-19 in the nation: a patient who was treated in a hospital near Paris in December, an indication that the virus has been spreading across the world for far longer than had previously been known.
The man reported coughing up blood, a headache and a fever. He was eventually admitted to the intensive care unit, though he recovered and was discharged on Dec. 29.
The discovery dramatically alters the timeline of the coronavirus, which has been responsible for more than 3.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases around the world, including 169,000 in France, as well as more than a quarter-million deaths. The man’s admission to the hospital came four days before the first reports of a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak.
The earlier date means it is likely the coronavirus had been spreading around the globe for weeks or months before it was identified by Chinese scientists in the cluster of abnormal pneumonia cases in Wuhan.
The French victim had not traveled abroad since August 2019, when he visited his native Algeria. One of his children had symptoms of an influenza-like illness before he fell ill, a potential sign that the child had contracted the coronavirus as well.
Both of those clues indicate that the man contracted the virus from someone else, and that community spread of the virus was taking place long before it had been identified by scientists.
There are ample signs that the coronavirus has been spreading far more widely than known. Two recent studies have showed that about a fifth of all infected people show no symptoms at all. More than half of those who test positive for the virus cannot identify how they are infected, another sign of asymptomatic spread.
The French doctors identified the first case by re-testing samples taken from patients between early December and the middle of January, when the country confirmed its first case of the coronavirus. The doctors examined 124 samples taken from patients who had presented influenza-like illnesses, 80 of whom tested negative for viruses like influenza or other more common coronaviruses. Fourteen patients were identified as potentially suffering from the coronavirus, and one tested positive for the virus.
The doctors said the man showed symptoms consistent with those of patients who tested positive later in China and Italy, thought to be the site of the first significant spread of the virus in Europe.
“COVID-19 is considered to be responsible for 86,334 cases and 12,210 deaths as of April 10, 2020 in France, but our findings suggest that these numbers could be underestimating the actual burden of COVID-19,” the doctors wrote.
The United States has found its own earlier cases of the coronavirus than initially thought. The Santa Clara, Calif., medical examiner’s office recently reclassified the death of a woman in early February as being due to the coronavirus, about three weeks before the first known death on American soil.
Updated at 8:44 p.m.