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This coronavirus study just made a discovery that surprised us all

Updated Nov 16th, 2020 1:40PM EST
Image: tilialucida/Adobe

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  • A startling new coronavirus study from Italy reveals that SARS-CoV-2 was actually spreading in the country as early as September 2019, several months earlier than expected.
  • Researchers from Milan found coronavirus neutralizing antibodies in the blood of volunteers from a cancer screening study.
  • The presence of antibodies is an indication that someone had an active COVID-19 infection or had recovered from the illness before the blood sample collection.

Italy’s novel coronavirus epidemic is thought to have started in mid-February, and the country quickly became one of Europe’s largest hotspots. Spain was another, and it was directly linked to Italy’s outbreak. Around the same time, the virus was spreading undetected in other countries, the US included. It would be weeks until the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and until countries around the world declared national emergencies. But several studies that have been conducted since then revealed that the novel virus was quietly spreading in late 2019 in Europe and the US.

Italy reported a higher caseload of pneumonia during the winter months and later found COVID-19 traces in wastewater that predated that first COVID-19 tests. But it turns out the virus may have been spreading quietly in the country even sooner than that, with a surprising new study saying that the pathogen was circulating in the region as early as September 2019.

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The data comes from a National Cancer Institute (INT) study, with the researchers suggesting that the virus might have been spreading outside of China much earlier than we previously thought. The findings were published in the Tumori Journal magazine, via Reuters, and they show that 11.6% of 959 healthy volunteers developed coronavirus antibodies long before February. These people joined a lung cancer screening trial between September 2019 and March 2020.

The University of Siena carried out a second set of antibody tests for the same research that’s titled Unexpected detection of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in the pre-pandemic period in Italy. Four cases dating back to the first week of October tested positive for neutralizing antibodies, which means the patients caught COVID-19 in September 2019 or even earlier.

“This is the main finding: people with no symptoms not only were positive after the serological tests but had also antibodies able to kill the virus,” Giovanni Apolone, a co-author of the study, told Reuters. “It means that the new coronavirus can circulate among the population for long and with a low rate of lethality not because it is disappearing but only to surge again.”

Reuters also notes that Italian researchers revealed in March that a higher than the usual number of severe pneumonia and flu cases were reported for the Lombardia region during the last quarter of 2019. That was also seen as a sign that the virus might have been circulating earlier than previously thought.

A different study published in the past few months showed unusual activity at many of the hospitals in Wuhan during the same period. Researchers used satellite imagery to compare photos of parking lots with previous years. They said at the time that one possible explanation for the busier hospitals might have been a new infectious disease like COVID-19 that could easily be mistaken for the flu. China still hasn’t shared anything explanation regarding where the novel coronavirus might have originated, and the WHO’s investigation has made little progress on the matter.

The full study from Italy is available at this link.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.