Clues to Covid-19 origins include anonymous skin sample in Italy

MILAN — In the quest to understand how the Covid-19 pandemic began, a lingering mystery is an Italian woman researchers say they can no longer find.

Members of a team led by the World Health Organization that is studying the origins of the virus want to investigate the case of a 25-year-old Milanese who went to a hospital in November 2019 with a sore throat and skin lesions: symptoms of a disease that will not be discovered in the city of Wuhan in China for a month. She left a sample of skin, smaller than a dime, which, in two tests carried out more than six months later, gave traces of the Covid-19 virus, according to research published in January by the British Journal of Dermatology.

Additional studies on the woman’s case, scientists say, could help determine how long the virus was circulating in China and elsewhere before a cluster of cases erupted in the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan in December 2019. The skin sample positive for Covid-19, sitting in wax in a researcher’s office in Milan, is an example of the scattered clues about the first days of the pandemic that the WHO-led investigation is continuing outside of China, where the pandemic started.

“You can’t ignore it,” said Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, a member of the WHO-led team, referring to the Italian case in an interview in April. She said the case offered enough evidence to merit a broader investigation to determine whether the virus had spread to Italy by November 2019.

The problem, the researchers say, is that none of them know who or where she is. The Policlinico Hospital in Milan and the University of Milan, which oversaw his case, said they did not have his contact details. Raffaele Gianotti, the dermatologist who treated her, died in March, days before the WHO-led team called for more research on her patient. Covid-19 did not cause his death, said his wife, Roberta Massobrio.

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