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Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, was approached by reporters during his regular press conference about a report released by Italy’s National Cancer Institute (INT) in Milan that coronavirus had been present in Italy since September 2019. He replied that the genesis of the virus was a “complex scientific issue” that required international scrutiny in order to obtain more information about it.
The spokesman said China will continue to take part in ongoing investigations to trace the origin of the pathogen.
Mr Zhao said: “We have seen and heard constant international reports of where and when COVID-19 first broke out.
“This once again shows that the origin of the virus is a complex scientific issue, and international scientific research cooperation should be carried out globally by scientists to get a better understanding of the animal reservoirs and transmission route of the virus, with the aim to better guard against risks in the future and protect the safety and health of people of all countries.
“Origin tracing is an ongoing process that may involve many countries. We hope that all countries will adopt a positive attitude and strengthen cooperation with the WHO to advance the work on origin tracing.
“China will continue participating in global scientific research in tracing the origin and transmission route of the virus, and work with the rest of the international community to contribute to the global cooperation on fighting COVID-19 and other viruses.”
Giovanni Apolone, a co-leader of the research, said that four patients from the study dated to the first week in October last year.
The findings directly related the cases to their infections dating back to September.
Mr Apolune told Reuters that “people with no symptoms not only were positive after the serological tests but had also antibodies able to kill the virus.”
He added: “It means that the new coronavirus can circulate among the population for long and with a low rate of lethality not because it is disappearing but only to surge again.”
If the claims were ratified, it would mean the virus had been circulating in Italy three months before it was first reported in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.
The report was published on Sunday, showing that 11.6 percent of the 959 healthy volunteers who took part in a lung cancer screening trial between September 2019 to March 2020 had formed coronavirus antibodies well before February.
The research’s findings have not yet been peer-reviewed, with other experts saying the study must be reviewed before accepting the conclusions.
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Professor Mark Pagel from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading, told Reuters: “These results are worth reporting, but mostly should be taken as something to follow up with further testing.
“All of the patients in the study were asymptomatic despite most being 55-65 years old and having been smokers.
“This would normally be a high-risk group for COVID-19, so it is puzzling why all patients were asymptomatic.”
Speaking to Reuters Jonathan Stoye, group leader at the Francis Crick Institute, said: “Other recent reports have shown that seasonal coronaviruses can elicit cross-neutralising antibodies.”
Andrew Preston, reader in microbial pathogenesis at the University of Bath, added: “I think we need a really conclusive demonstration that those samples are picking up the COVID-19 virus and that those antibodies were not actually triggered by another virus.”
He expressed confusion over the reason why the conclusions were not a requirement for the publication of the study.
He added: “But it is perfectly feasible to go away and do those extra tests and come back and show that.”
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