Mysterious Italian COVID “Patient Zero” who had coronavirus weeks before Wuhan outbreak sought by researchers
07/19/2021 // Cassie B. // Views

In the search for answers about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, a team of researchers led by the World Health Organization is looking for an unidentified Italian woman who went to a Milan hospital with a sore throat and skin lesions in November of 2019, a month before the virus was identified in Wuhan, China and was later found to have COVID-19. However, there is a lot about this story that isn't adding up.

A skin sample that was taken from the 25-year-old woman when she initially visited a dermatologist was found to contain traces of the virus when it was tested six months afterward, suggesting that the virus had already been circulating long before the first cluster took hold in Wuhan. The woman had been experiencing an unexplained rash on her arms, but she reported that it disappeared by April 2020. The virus has been known to cause skin disorders such as rashes as well as discoloration of fingers and toes, although these symptoms are less common than the classic symptoms of fever, dry cough and tiredness.

A blood sample taken from the same patient in June 2020 tested positive for antibodies to coronavirus, but authorities warn that does not necessarily mean she had the virus when she first went to the hospital that November. By June, she could have well been exposed to an asymptomatic COVID-19 infection after her November illness as northern Italy was in the throes of the pandemic at that time.

Nevertheless, scientists are convinced that further study of the case could help determine how long the virus has been out there. However, the woman’s identity is not known and the doctor who was treating her recently died.


Mystery surrounds patient's identity

According to the Wall Street Journal, the facilities in charge of her case, the University of Milan and Milan’s Policlinico Hospital, do not have the patient’s details for some reason. In addition, the dermatologist who had been treating her, Raffaele Gianotti, died just days before the WHO team asked for an investigation into the patient in March.

When the pandemic hit Italy in the beginning of 2020, Dr. Gianotti had looked at archived skin samples to look for traces of COVID-19 and found the spike protein and protein shell in the woman’s sample, but it had degraded too much for him to carry out a crucial third test that could have enabled him to sequence the virus and confirm it was COVID-19.

The WHO team that is investigating the woman's case is also recommending that other possible COVID-19 cases that predate the first case in Wuhan be tracked down to help develop a clearer picture of the timeline of the virus’s early spread. They have asked blood banks in several countries to test blood samples taken in late 2019 to look for COVID-19 antibodies.

It is difficult to believe that several different medical professionals would have taken and tested blood and skin samples from a patient without linking a name to them. Although some of the more remote areas of Italy might have questionable record-keeping practices, this woman was under the care of modern, reputable hospitals in Milan, and she may have also been given a prescription.

Although it’s an interesting story, it’s hard not to wonder if this could be an attempt to take some of the heat off of China. The fact that the WHO is involved in this story and that the doctor conveniently died before he could help identify the patient only add to the skepticism. Like many things related to the virus, it is possible we will never know the truth.

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