Adding further evidence to theories that China kept the coronavirus and a spreading epidemic of flu-like symptoms hidden from the world for several months before disclosing what was happening, a new study published in Tumori Journal by Italy's National Cancer Institute suggests that patients in Italy had COVID-19 antibodies as early as last October.

As Reuters reports, Italian researchers found that out of 959 healthy volunteers who were enrolled in a lung-cancer screening trial between September 2019 and March 2020, nearly 12% had COVID-19 antibodies well before February, when the first documented case of the coronavirus appeared in the Lombardy region near Milan. The study participants were spread all over the country, with at least one COVID-positive person identified in each of 13 of Italy's regions. And a second, related antibody study that was part of the same research, conducted by the University of Siena, found four cases that dated back to the first week of October that showed the presence of SARS Cov-2 antibodies — meaning those four people had been infected in September.

"This is the main finding: people with no symptoms not only were positive after the serological tests but also had antibodies able to kill the virus," said Giovanni Apolone, a co-author of the study, speaking to Reuters.

Pandemic lockdowns in northern Italy did not begin until early March, and were not imposed nationwide until March 8. But this latest research suggests that the virus had been circulating in the country for six months at that point, perhaps in "a less symptomatic form."

Although the researchers also point to an unusual spike in severe pneumonia and flu cases in Lombardy in the last three months of 2019 — something that has been repeatedly mentioned in connection with California and other locales in the U.S. Practitioners around Italy began reporting spikes in atypical bilateral bronchitis in elderly patients, which they attributed to an aggressive new influenza virus rather than to any new virus, because none had yet been reported.

Other research has suggested that the majority of early COVID-19 cases in California could be traced to China, while early cases in New York City were primarily being transmitted by travelers from Europe.

Data collected about hospital patients in Los Angeles in late 2019, published in September 2020, suggested there was an unmistakable rise in respiratory illnesses in area hospitals that began on December 22. And multiple theories have emerged about when and how virus outbreaks may have been seeded on the West Coast last fall, with cases only first identified here as COVID-19 in late January.

A separate study by Harvard researchers found via satellite imagery of hospitals and search-engine queries there was evidence of a respiratory illness outbreak in Wuhan, China dating back to last autumn — and well before China publicly acknowledged the identification of the novel coronavirus last December.

Photo: Gabriela Clare Marino