WHO scientists are taking a harder look at a set of blood tests taken in Italy in October 2019 that later tested positive for antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
On Tuesday, WHO officials confirmed they were in contact with a group of scientists in Italy who published a shocking report last November revealing that several blood tests collected as part of a lung cancer screening program months before the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in Italy had mysteriously tested positive for antibodies the body produces to fight SARS-CoV-2.
Their report, published by the Italian National Cancer Institute in its magazine Tumori Journal, found that 111 of 959 samples in the trial showed the unique spike protein SARS-CoV-2 uses to infect cells in the human body were present in the patient’s blood, and that tests of other similar coronaviruses were negative. That would mean that the patients had contracted and recovered from COVID-19 by the time of the October blood tests, signaling that COVID-19 was circulating in northern Italy in September 2019 - six months before the first cases were detected in Milan in February 2020.
"The WHO asked us if we could share the biological material and if we could re-run the tests in an independent laboratory. We accepted," Giovanni Apolone, scientific director of the Milan Cancer Institute (INT), one of the institutions responsible for the November 2020 paper, told Reuters on Monday.
According to Reuters, both positive and negative samples have been sent to Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, to be re-tested.
Apolone stressed that "none of the studies published so far have ever questioned the geographical origin," but likely indicate a less lethal variant of the virus has been in circulation for some time since the slew of deadlier, more virulent cases attracted medical attention in the Chinese city of Wuhan in the final days of 2019.
By February 21, 2020, the first case of COVID-19 in Europe was detected in Milan, Italy, and the city became the epicenter of Italy’s outbreak. Italy suffered the worst of the first wave of the pandemic in Europe, with a death rate as high as 7.2% - twice the death rate reported in Hubei Province, where the outbreak was first recorded. However, there are indications the pandemic in Italy was even worse in 2020 than reported, according to an Italian study published in January.
However, even if a milder COVID-19 infection was circulating in China earlier in 2019, it would still seem to disprove the once-discredited theory, now revived by the Biden administration, that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. As Sputnik has reported, the theory was spread by former US President Donald Trump and right-wing anti-China figures close to him in early 2020 as the pandemic spiraled out of control in the US and his administration began looking for someone else to blame for it.
Last week, WHO spokesperson Fadela Chaib told a United Nations briefing the agency was preparing a proposal on a second phase of its investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2, but she provided no specific timeline. The first phase, conducted in January and February and released in March, yielded no concrete results, but found a zoonotic exchange - that humans caught it from an infected animal - more likely than that the virus escaped from the Wuhan lab. They also suggested an international military sports tournament the city hosted in October 2019 be investigated as an additional possible vector.
Some scientists and political figures intent on pushing the “lab leak” theory have claimed Beijing denied the WHO scientists adequate access to data from the Wuhan virology lab, with more than a dozen US allies issuing a statement demanding openness, but scientists on the WHO team have pushed back, saying their efforts weren’t impeded by Chinese officials, and that the level of openness being demanded of China is one no Western country would accept if it were made of them.
Also last week, US President Joe Biden ordered an intelligence report on the origins of COVID-19, "including whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident,” to be delivered in 90 days. In response, the Global Times called for the US biolab at Fort Detrick, Maryland, to be investigated as well.