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COVID-19 Spread in the World Before We Noticed

An early case in Paris diagnosed retroactively suggests that COVID-19 spread globally before anyone anticipated it would.
COVID-19 Spread in the World Before We Noticed
Nurses Moving Patient in Corridor

When did you start paying attention to the new coronavirus that eventually became a pandemic? Many people got their earliest inklings in January, 2020. The first cases were reported in Wuhan, China, in December, 2019.  New data suggest that COVID-19 spread globally long before anyone suspected it (International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents, May 3, 2020).

When Did COVID-19 Spread Around the World?

Doctors diagnosed the first French cases of COVID-19 on January 24, 2020. Both patients had recently traveled to Wuhan, which aided in the diagnosis. Many symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to those of influenza. As a result, physicians outside China relied on travel history as a clue to differentiate these infections.

Recently, French investigators wondered whether any patients hospitalized with influenza-like illness last year actually had COVID-19 instead. They tested samples from 14 patients who were in the intensive care unit of a Paris-area hospital in December.

The researchers discovered that a 42-year-old man who developed pneumonia but tested negative for influenza had been infected with the coronavirus. His tissue sample had been taken on December 27, 2019. Doctors did not diagnose  the first COVID-19 patients in France for another month. The man was sick for two weeks, coughing up blood and suffering chest pain, headache and fever. Physicians had treated one of his children for an influenza-like illness shortly before the man got sick.

No one knows how the man became infected with the coronavirus, since he had not traveled to China nor socialized with other people who had.

As the researchers note, these facts 

“suggest that the disease was already spreading among the French population at the end of December 2019.”

Early Cases in the US:

US officials have also found evidence that COVID-19 killed some people in California early in February. This suggests that COVID-19 spread to the western states long before anyone started looking for it. Apparently, the virus was already circulating in the community before any of the early cases were identified.

In New York City, doctors determined a Manhattan woman had the disease on March 1, 2020. They thought she was the first. Investigators at Northeastern University applied mathematical models to the outbreak, however, and deduced that the New York area might already have had some 11,000 people infected but undiagnosed at that time. At the same time, COVID-19 spread to Seattle, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco with little or no recognition of the possible danger.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
  • Deslandes A et al, "SARS-CoV-2 was already spreading in France in late December 2019." International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents, May 3, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijantimicag.2020.106006
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