New discoveries shift coronavirus timeline by months

New discoveries shift coronavirus timeline by months

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The coronavirus that has exploded into a pandemic has almost certainly been circulating for several months longer than public health experts first suspected, masked by asymptomatic cases or illnesses incorrectly diagnosed.

Scientists believe the first known case of a patient contracting the coronavirus happened in mid-November, in a 55-year-old resident of China’s Hubei province. That was six weeks before the World Health Organization’s (WHO) surveillance network picked up reports of a cluster of atypical pneumonia cases in Wuhan, the province’s largest city.

There are increasing signs that the virus had begun its global spread long before it was identified. French scientists on Monday published the results of a study that found coronavirus present in samples given by a resident of a Paris suburb who was tested Dec. 27, four days before the Wuhan cluster was identified.

The French patient, a 42-year-old fishmonger, had not traveled outside of the country since visiting his native Algeria in August, a potential sign that the virus came to France in someone else even earlier. One of the man’s children had symptoms of a flu-like illness, raising the prospect that the child infected the father — and further back-dating the point at which the virus had spread to Europe.

The coronavirus also likely landed in the United States earlier than the first known American case, a man north of Seattle who traveled home from Wuhan in mid-January.

Medical officials in California’s Santa Clara County said last month that a woman who died at her home on Feb. 6 had the coronavirus. That woman had not traveled recently, suggesting she contracted the virus through contact with someone else who may have returned to the Bay Area from overseas.

Such back-dating is not uncommon when scientists are racing to identify the spread of a disease, experts said.

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