Italy sewage study suggests COVID-19 was there in December 2019

By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - Scientists in Italy have found traces of the new corona virus in wastewater collected from Milan and Turin in December 2019. This indicates that COVID-19 was already in circulation in northern Italy before China reported the first cases.
The Italian national health institute examined 40 wastewater samples from sewage treatment plants in northern Italy between October 2019 and February 2020. An analysis published on Thursday found that samples taken in Milan and Turin on December 18 showed the presence of SARS-Cov -2 virus.
"This research can help us understand the beginning of virus circulation in Italy," said Giuseppina La Rosa, an environmental wastewater expert at the Italian National Health Institute, who co-led the research.
A spokeswoman for the institute said the full data and studies will be released next week.
Research in the Netherlands, France, Australia, and elsewhere has found evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be detected in wastewater, and many countries are beginning to take wastewater samples to track the disease.
Scientists said evidence of traces of the virus prior to late 2019 was consistent with evidence in other countries that COVID-19 may have been in circulation before China reported the first cases on December 31.
Noel McCarthy, population studies and technology expert at the British Warwick Medical School, said the detection of SARS-Cov-2 genetic material in Italian wastewater in December was "a reliable evidence for cases of COVID-19 at that time were there ".
Rowland Kao, professor of epidemiology and data at Edinburgh University in Scotland, agreed that it was plausible that the disease could circulate at the time, but added: "(This finding) alone does not tell us whether this early detection was the cause the very big epidemic in Italy, or if it was due to a later introduction to the country. "
A study by French scientists in May found that a man was infected with COVID-19 on December 27, almost a month before France confirmed its first cases.
La Rosa said the presence of the virus in Italian waste samples does not automatically imply that the main transmission chains that led to the development of the epidemic in our country came from these first cases.
Samples positive for traces of the virus that causes COVID-19 were also found in wastewater from Bologna, Milan and Turin in January and February 2020. The samples taken in October and November 2019 were tested negative.
The institute plans to launch a pilot study to monitor wastewater in tourist locations in July.

(Additional reporting by Deena Beasley in Los Angeles and Emilio Parodi in Milan; editing by Peter Graff, Andrew Heavens and Giles Elgood)

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