CNN reports that a Frenchman named Amirouche Hammar had Covid-19 in December in Paris. This was supposedly discovered after old samples were re-checked for the Covid-19 virus.

Alas there's hardly any detail in that news report besides the fact that Hammar went to a hospital with a dry cough and (eventually?) coughing blood. There's nothing said about his travel history for example.

Insofar, I think the first (previously) confirmed case outside China was one in Thailand on Jan 13, according to the WHO:

13 January 2020: Officials confirm a case of COVID-19 in Thailand, the first recorded case outside of China.

So is there anything that can corroborate the scant account from the CNN report? Did Hammar have a travel history? Is the virus sampled from him close enough to the original Wuhan samples (vast phylogenetic trees of Covid-19 have assembled by now).

Alternatively Hammar's sample(s) could have been contaminated later... (E.g., even the CDC had a notorious problem with something like that.)


3 Answers 3


This has been all over the breaking news, although none of the news stories I found link to the actual study, so here's Reuters' take:

The Italian National Institute of Health looked at 40 sewage samples collected from wastewater treatment plants in northern Italy between October 2019 and February 2020. An analysis released late on Thursday said samples taken in Milan and Turin on Dec. 18 showed the presence of the SARS-Cov-2 virus.


“That COVID-19 could have been circulating in Italy is possible,” said Rowland Kao, a veterinary epidemiology and data science professor at Scotland’s Edinburgh University.

“(This finding) does not on its own, however, tell us if that early detection was the source of the very large epidemic in Italy, or if that was due to a later introduction into the country.”


Samples positive for traces of the virus that causes COVID-19 were also found in sewage from Bologna, Milan and Turin in January and February 2020. Samples taken in October and November 2019 tested negative.

So it is corroborating evidence that the virus may have been circulating in Europe somewhat earlier (December 18 in Italy) than the confirmed (individual) cases.

It seems that study has been published in a peer reviewed venue. They mention Milan and Turin in the abstract and find Dec 18 as the first positive sample, so it's almost certainly the same study that was discussed in the press.

enter image description here

Furthermore the CDC has published a paper from Italian authors finding a similar case to the French one, but in Italy, i.e. a Dec 2019 retrospective detection:

We identified severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 RNA in an oropharyngeal swab specimen collected from a child with suspected measles in early December 2019, ≈3 months before the first identified coronavirus disease case in Italy.


The sequence (SARS-CoV-2_Milan_Dec2019 [GenBank accession no. MW303957]) was identified in a specimen collected from a 4-year-old boy who lived in the surrounding area of Milan and had no reported travel history. On November 21, the child had cough and rhinitis; about a week later (November 30), he was taken to the emergency department with respiratory symptoms and vomiting. On December 1, he had onset of a measles-like rash; on December 5 (14 days after symptom onset), the oropharyngeal swab specimen was obtained for clinical diagnosis of suspected measles. This patient’s clinical course, which included late skin manifestations, resembles what has been reported by other authors; maculopapular lesions have been among the most prevalent cutaneous manifestations observed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and several studies have noticed a later onset in younger patients (7).

  • There was also COVID-19 in Mulhouse in mid November.
    – JRB
    Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 20:50

Yes, according to Deslandes et al (2020):

One sample taken from a 42-year-old unemployed male born in Algeria who had lived in France for many years was positive. His last foreign travel was to Algeria in August 2019. One of his children presented with ILI [influenza-like illness] prior to the onset of his symptoms. His medical history included asthma and type II diabetes mellitus. He presented to the emergency ward on 27 December 2019 with haemoptysis, cough, chest pain, headache and fever, evolving for 4 days.

... The patient was admitted to the ICU where he received antibiotic therapy and his clinical evolution was favourable until discharge on 29 December 2019.

... Here we report an observation of a SARS-CoV-2-infected patient 1 month before the first reported cases in France. ... the absence of a link with China and the lack of recent foreign travel suggest that the disease was already spreading among the French population at the end of December 2019.

  • 3
    This is just repeating the claim. Commented May 14, 2020 at 10:23
  • 1
    How likely is it that this is just a contaminated sample or a false positive? I think that's what has to be debunked to answer the question.
    – user141592
    Commented May 14, 2020 at 16:41
  • @johanna alas I don't believe that is possible. You can take a new sample but neither result is conclusive. Commented May 15, 2020 at 8:12
  • 2
    @JohnDvorak Unless they can corroborate by identifying more early cases. Until then, I think this is more likely to be like those "reinfections" everyone was panicking about a few weeks ago that turned out to be contaminated samples. "It was spreading widely for months but didn't start causing tons hospitalisations until several months later when it suddenly started behaving like a brand new illness, spreading from a single point of origin" seems very implausible.
    – user141592
    Commented May 15, 2020 at 10:03
  • Also, wouldn't that be a highly unusual case of severe Covid-19? In and out of ICU within 3 days with only antibiotic (not antiviral) treatment. Commented Dec 15, 2020 at 6:50

Yes, but it goes even further back than that:

MADRID (Reuters) - Spanish virologists have found traces of the novel coronavirus in a sample of Barcelona waste water collected in March 2019, nine months before the COVID-19 disease was identified in China, the University of Barcelona said on Friday.

  • 1
    Ah, so it's another variant of the "Spanish flu"! Commented Dec 18, 2020 at 20:45
  • 1
    @DanielRHicks It's funny because WHO decided a long time ago to not name the viruses from where they possibly originated. The Spanish Flu almost certainly did not originate from Spain. It's possible that Covid-19 did not originate from China either. But that's beside the point. I'm just pointing out this news report. That's all. Commented Dec 18, 2020 at 21:02
  • 2
    That one is probably among the more dubious/contested evidence. There was a single sample that tested positive, at low levels, in that interval. The actual paper is here: medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.06.13.20129627v1 Commented Dec 18, 2020 at 22:44
  • 4
    I think this overstates the confidence levels. The results are downplayed in the article. (With an R0 of about 5 or 6, and an incubation time of say 2 weeks, why didn't we see thousands of deaths in Spain in 2019 ?)
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 2:10
  • 1
    See also question on bio SE on that study: biology.stackexchange.com/questions/97625/… Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 20:21

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .