COVID was circulating in Europe in September last year — three months earlier than thought, experts say.
Blood samples from cancer patients in Italy show the virus was prevalent then.
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Some 14 per cent of 959 people, who were all asymptomatic, had coronavirus antibodies in September 2019, when screening began.
By March, when testing ended, almost a third of the patients had antibodies.
Researchers called it “an unexpected very early circulation of coronavirus”.
They said the finding “clarifies the onset and spread” of the pandemic and may “reshape” its history.
It had been thought the first case in Europe was in France in December 2019, just as cases were beginning to surge in China.
Italy’s first positive diagnosis was believed to be business manager Mattia Maestri, 38, from Codogno near Milan in February.
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Many of the cancer patients tested by the Milan Institute for Tumour Diseases and the University of Siena lived in and near the city — an area hard hit by the pandemic in spring.
The experts said it was not clear how the virus reached Italy but the best theory was it was brought in by people who had travelled to or arrived from China in the late summer of 2019.
Beijing has been accused of hushing up the disease.
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