RNA molecules of COVID-19 discovered in Italian patients from before pandemic
Hermione Kitson in Siena


A landmark study in Italy has found molecular evidence of COVID-19 circulating as early as mid-September 2019, five months before the country's first official clinical diagnosis.

Researchers from Milan University retested samples from patients with "measles-like" symptoms and found ribonucleic acid (RNA) from the virus in one patient dating back to September 12, 2019. 

Emanuele Montomoli is the professor of public health at Siena University and Scientific Director of the VesMederi laboratory. He said the latest study gives concrete and direct evidence of Italy's COVID-19 timeline.



100 years of Vogue Paris 

Tracking La Palma's lava trail 

Romanian billionaire dies in plane crash 

"The most important thing is that they're looking for the real virus and the Milan group found RNA of the virus, so this is the real demonstration," said Montomoli.

Research by VesMederi has also played a key role in determining traces of the virus in Italy's pre-pandemic period.

In collaboration with the Milan Cancer Institute, its researchers retrospectively tested 1,000 blood samples from a lung cancer screening trial and found antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 dating back to late September 2019.

"We received congratulations from the World Health Organization and they asked us, considering the importance of our results, to repeat the analysis in another independent lab," said Montomoli.


Emanuele Montomoli believes that a similar, if not as transmissible, variant of the coronavirus was circulating in Italy before January 2020. /CGTN

Emanuele Montomoli believes that a similar, if not as transmissible, variant of the coronavirus was circulating in Italy before January 2020. /CGTN


This was carried out by Erasmus University in the Netherlands.

Alessandro Manenti is the project director at VisMederi Laboratory, he said: "Interestingly, for some samples, they received the same results that we had in the past, especially in October 2019."

However, a positive result was not achieved in all samples.

"We were expecting discrepancies because every laboratory has a different ambient and testing method, so there are many variables at play," he explained.

It's part of a body of evidence, also found in wastewater, that indicates the virus was present months before Italy's first diagnosed case in February 2020.

"This research is important because I don't believe the SARS coronavirus appeared out of nothing at the end of 2019 in the Wuhan market. It is a consolidated concept that something like an ancestral virus already circulated before," said Montomoli of VesMederi.

Two years later, Italy is now close to reaching its target of immunizing 80 percent of the population over the age of 12, meaning the government can further ease restrictions.

The rate of contagion is stable but, as scientists look back in time for answers, Italy faces another test for the fall and winter months ahead.


Cover Image: CGTN

Search Trends