Waste water study finds coronavirus was already in Italy in December

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A study by Italy's National Institute of Health has found that the new coronavirus was in circulation in wastewater in the northern cities of Milan and Turin in December 2019, at least two months before the virus was confirmed to have spread locally in the population.

She is the spokeswoman for the institute and said that the results of the study would be published in a journal next week.

Italian national Institute of health studied 40 samples of wastewater taken at wastewater treatment plants in the North of the country in the period from October 2019 to February 2020.

La Rosa, who led the study, said that researchers compared these 40 samples to 24 control samples collected between September 2018 and June 2019.

An analysis discovered samples taken in Milan and Turin on 18 December showed the presence of COVID-19 - more than two weeks before China reported its first cases.

A study in May by French scientists found that a man was infected with COVID-19 as early as December 27, almost a month before France confirmed its first cases.

While the wastewater samples from October and November were negative, the ones from December were positive in Milan and Turin and the ones from January were positive in Bologna, another Italian city.

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To date, 34,500 people have died in Italy as a result of Covid-19.

If the virus started in Italy in December, does this mean that it originally started in this country? The first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported from Spain in late February, early March. Researchers in Barcelona found coronavirus in wastewater dating back to 41 days prior to their first reported case.

Noel McCarthy, an expert in population evidence and technologies at Britain's Warwick Medical School, said the detection of SARS-Cov-2 genetic material in Italian wastewater in December was "reliable evidence of cases of COVID-19 being present there at that time". He added that this shows the presence of the virus even before it began to spread rapidly.

La Rosa cautioned those who may presume this is what kickstarted the outbreak, as the samples did not "automatically imply that the main transmission chains that led to the development of the epidemic in our country originated from these very first cases."

The Italian report follows similar findings in other European countries.

It is launching a pilot study on priority sites identified in tourist resorts in July, and expects to setup a nationwide surveillance network of waste water by the autumn.

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