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French patients were sick with Covid-19 in mid-November and before China - researchers

Medical staff work at a level intensive care unit for patients contaminated with coronavirus Covid-19 of Louis Pasteur Hospital in Colmar, eastern France on March 26, 2020.
Medical staff work at a level intensive care unit for patients contaminated with coronavirus Covid-19 of Louis Pasteur Hospital in Colmar, eastern France on March 26, 2020. AFP - SEBASTIEN BOZON
3 min

Doctors in the French Haut-Rhin region, hit hard by Covid-19, say they’ve detected several cases dating back to 16 November 2019 – long before the disease is believed to have surfaced in France, and before it was even announced in China. 

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Radiologists at the Albert Schweitzer private hospital in Colmar, near the German border, reviewed 2,456 chest X-rays produced between 12 October, 2019 and 30 April, 2020 to see if they coud find one or more “patient zeros”.  

According to French daily Le Figaro, each of the scans was carefully re-studied before being filed into three categories: “not Covid-compatible”, “Covid-compatible” and “typical Covid”. Any scan falling into the last two categories needed the validation of a second or third doctor.

The hospital's chief of medical imaging, Professor Michel Schmitt, said the process allowed radiologists to pinpoint two cases of “typical anomalies caused by Covid-19” dated 16 November, 2019 and then 12 others in December and January – up until the virus reached its epidemic stage.

Doctors from across France have been trying to track the country's earliest case which, until now, is understood to have been found in Bondy, in the department of Seine-Saint-Denis north of Paris, on 27 December – after PCR flu samples were re-tested.

Earlier this month, Yves Cohen, head of resuscitation at the Jean Verdier and Avicenne hospitals – in Bondy and nearby Bobigny –told French TV channel BFM that a man had tested positive for Covid-19 nearly a month before the French government confirmed its first cases.

Dr Yves Cohen, head of emergency services at Avicenne and Jean-Verdier hospitals speaking on BFMTV, 3 May 2020.
Dr Yves Cohen, head of emergency services at Avicenne and Jean-Verdier hospitals speaking on BFMTV, 3 May 2020. © bfmtv

What happens next?

The team at Albert Schweitzer now hope to continue their research to see if they can find possible traces of Covid-19 present on scans from October 2019. 

Professor Schmitt says they also want to carry out epidemiological analyses on the files deemed "Covid-compatible" or "typical Covid" – to meet the patients in question so as to "reconstruct their clinical and biological history, their environment and lifestyle, their possible journeys, any viral tests carried out later on".

The objective of this new study, he said, is a question of "understanding how this disease could appear and spread”, while also thinking about "how to do better next time and how to react sooner”.

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