The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 or SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the COVID-19 disease was found to be circulating in France since November 2019, a new study by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) has revealed. 

The first case of COVID-19 infection, or patient zero, was identified on Jan. 24 last year in the southwestern city of Bordeaux. However, a case of suspected pneumonia at a hospital near Paris on Dec. 27, 2019 was later found to be a coronavirus infection.

But INSERM’s latest study based on a serological analysis of samples of volunteers has confirmed that the SARS CoV-2 virus was most likely circulating from at least November 2019.

A statement by the French research institute said this new data, published in the European Journal of Epidemiology, suggests circulation of the virus in Europe nearly two months earlier than previously thought.

Researchers at INSERM, the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, Sorbonne University and the Institute of Research Development in Marseille conducted a joint study to fully understand the new COVID-19 virus.

The study was based on the retrospective analysis of serum samples of 9,144 adults living in 12 different regions of France.

According to the results, 353 volunteers tested positive for anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. Of these, samples of 13 volunteers were taken between November 2019 and January 2020. The samples were further subjected to internal micro-neutralization tests to detect the neutralizing antibodies and an investigation on clinical details, including possible exposure history.

“Surveys conducted with 11 of these participants revealed the existence of symptoms that may be linked to infection with the virus responsible for COVID-19 or to situations at risk of potential exposure to SARS-CoV-2 as of November 2019,” said a statement.

COVID-19 infections in France are among the highest in Europe, with more than 3.4 million positive cases and over 80,000 deaths. As of Wednesday, health authorities recorded 25,387 new cases and 296 deaths.

To curb the spread of contamination from young children to adults, the Health Ministry on Wednesday announced “saliva tests” for school children at the end of winter vacation. The tests, which are less uncomfortable than nasal swabs, will allow for mass screening of students and teachers at schools and universities.

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