The World Health Organization (WHO) led team studying the origins of Covid-19 have turned their attention to the case of a mystery Italian woman.
The 25-year-old visited a Milan hospital complaining of a sore throat and skin lesions in November 2019 – a month before Covid-19 would be identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Research published in January this year found that a skin sample left by the woman yielded traces of the coronavirus when it was tested more than six months later.
Scientists say the woman’s case suggests that the virus was circulating in China and elsewhere long before the first cluster exploded at Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market in December 2019, and further study of her case could help to determine just how long.
The only problem is that no one knows the woman’s identity.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the facilities that oversaw her case say they do not have her details, while Raffaele Gianotti, the dermatologist who treated her, died in March just days before the WHO-led team requested more research into the patient.
The team has recommended searching for possible Covid-19 cases in other countries that predate the first confirmed Wuhan case.
Researchers say examining earlier suspected cases could help firm up a timeline of the early spread of the virus.
To do this, the team has asked blood banks in several countries to test samples from late 2019 for the presence of coronavirus antibodies.
Several studies have suggested that individuals were infected with Covid-19 before the first cases of the virus were reported in their areas but the Italian woman’s case remains one of the most intriguing.
A blood test taken from the woman in June 2020 tested positive for coronavirus antibodies.
Months earlier, on November 10, 2019, a skin sample was taken from the woman by Dr. Gianotti.
When the pandemic hit Italy in early 2020, Dr. Gianotti looked back through archived skin samples searching for any trace of Covid-19, the Wall Street Journal reported.
He conducted two tests on the woman’s skin sample, both of which found the spike protein and protein shell but the sample was too degraded to conduct a crucial third test.
This test would have allowed Dr. Gianotti to genetically sequence the virus, providing a more definitive confirmation that the woman had indeed had Covid-19 and potentially allowing researchers to compare it with cases from China.
Dr. Barberis pointed out that, while the woman’s blood taken in mid-2020 tested positive for antibodies, Covid-19 had engulfed northern Italy by that time, creating the possibility that she might have been exposed to an asymptomatic infection some time after her November illness.