Covid-19 testing

France’s first Covid-19 case 'dates back to December', flu retest shows

The statues at Human Rights Square, Place du Trocadéro, wear masks, 2 May 2020.
The statues at Human Rights Square, Place du Trocadéro, wear masks, 2 May 2020. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

A doctor in the Paris region says one of his patients who was diagnosed with pneumonia in December was, in fact, infected with Covid-19. The report, which is due to be published in detail this week, would make it the first known case of the disease in France – a month earlier than previously thought.


Dr Yves Cohen, head of the emergency services ward at the Avicenne and Jean-Verdier hospitals near Paris, says he went back through the files of patients who had been admitted with flu symptoms in December 2019 and January 2020.

"Twenty-four percent of patients had symptoms which could have corresponded to Covid-19," Cohen told French channel BFMTV.

"We re-tested the nasal swabs which were conducted at the time in relation to another diagnosis, to try and find traces of coronavirus," he explains.

"Out of 14 patients, one tested positive. We tested it two more times to make sure there was no mistake. And twice, it came back positive."

Nasal swab tests, or Nucleic Acid Amplification Tests (NAAT), using a long cotton bud inserted into the nose, can detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the Covid-19 disease. 

A sample, gathered from the throat behind the nose, containing a mixture of mucous and saliva, is then tested in a laboratory, over the course of a few hours.

Symptoms coherent with Covid-19

In the December case, the patient in question was a man in his 50s who had no idea how he caught the disease.

According to Cohen, his file showed a scanner which revealed "signs that were totally connected to Covid-19", including signs of inflammation consistent with the virus when he was hospitalised in December at Jean-Verdier Hospital in Bondy, north of Paris.

Contacted later by Cohen's staff, the patient explained that he had not travelled to any infected areas. He had been sick for two weeks and had infected his two children – but not his wife.

The man's wife works in a supermarket at a fish stall. "We asked ourselves if there was a link with fish imported from China. But the woman only worked with French produce," Cohen said. 

His team later learned that the woman works alongside "people of Chinese origin" at a sushi stall. "We wonder if she may have been infected asymptomatically," he added. 

The patient and his children are now in good health after recovering from the virus.

First cases announced in January

The first official cases of Covid-19, were announced on 24 January by then Minister for Health Agnès Buyzn: two people in Paris and one in Bordeaux. Two of them had returned from Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the outbreak, the other person was a close family member.

Cohen says he has alerted the National Health Agency (ARS) about his discovery and alerted other virologists to re-rest negative swabs in their hospitals to see if there is a trace of Covid-19.

A report is due to be published in the coming days by the International journal of antimicrobial agents.

"We can deduce from this experience that Covid-19 was already in France in December, because the first patient we tested positive dates back to 27 December. We can't go further than that."

"Now it's up to the authorities to carry out an epidemiological investigation," he concluded.

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