Was France’s first coronavirus case in December 2019?

Did a 42-year-old man from near Paris, who had no recent travel history, become France's first coronavirus patient back in December 2019?

Was France's first coronavirus case in December 2019?
Did the epidemic start much earlier than previously thought in France? Photo: AFP

China reported its first cases of the new coronavirus in December. But was COVID-19 already silently circulating? To find out scientists are looking for “patient zeros” by tracking the evolution of the virus itself.

This genetic detective work is tracing the family tree of the coronavirus that has killed tens of thousands in its relentless spread across the planet. 

READ ALSO What is the 'French strain' of coronvirus and how was it discovered?

It could also help find out if the virus was spreading in other countries before the first infections were officially recorded.

In France, a cluster of cases was discovered in late January. 

But a new study published in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents has suggested the virus was already in the country a month earlier.

A retrospective analysis of samples taken from 14 intensive care patients with influenza-like symptoms at the Avicenne and Jean-Verdier hospitals in Paris found one positive COVID-19 case — a 42-year-old French resident who had not visited China. He was hospitalised on December 27.  

The patient named Amirouche Hammar, from Bobigny in the north-eastern Paris suburbs recovered but has said he had no idea where he caught the virus because he had not been abroad.

Hammar was admitted to hospital suffering from a dry cough, a fever and breathing problems – symptoms which would later become known as main signs of coronavirus.

One theory for how Hammar caught the disease centres on his wife who worked at a supermarket near Paris Charles de Gaulle airport and could have come into contact with people who had recently arrived from China.

France's government says it would consider investigating the case.

Olivier Bouchaud, head of the infectious diseases department at Avicenne said at first the virus spreads “quietly in the population, without anyone  detecting its presence”.

So evidence of earlier infections would only confirm what many scientists had suspected, he told AFP.

It might also help explain cases like that of Aicha, a 57-year-old medical secretary who was hospitalised in Marseille in mid-January with severe respiratory symptoms.

At the time the mysterious outbreak of pneumonia cases in the Chinese city of Wuhan was still seen as a faraway problem. 

France did not have a single confirmed case and the World Health Organisation was still weeks away from giving it the name COVID-19.

Aicha's husband Jacques, a doctor, said she had “all the clinical signs” of the disease, including loss of taste and smell. But her tests have been inconclusive. 

Other countries are discovering they may have had earlier infections. In the United States, autopsies performed on suspicious deaths in California have revealed infections before the first official case on January 21st.

But Samuel Alizon, of the French National Centre for Scientific Research at Montpellier University, has cautioned that it is important to distinguish between isolated cases and the origin of the “epidemic wave”.

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Carte vitale: France to adopt a new ‘biometric’ health card

The French parliament has approved a €20 million project to launch a 'biometric' version of the carte vitale health insurance card.

Carte vitale: France to adopt a new 'biometric' health card

As part of the French government’s package of financial aid for the cost-of-living crisis, €20 million will be set set aside to launch a biometric health card, after an amendment proposed by senators was approved.

Right-wing senators made this measure a “condition” of their support for the financial aid package, according to French left-wing daily Libération, and on Thursday the measure was approved by the Assemblée nationale.

While it sounds quite high tech, the idea is relatively simple, according to centre-right MP Thibault Bazin: the carte vitale would be equipped with a chip that “contains physical characteristics of the insured, such as their fingerprints” which would allow healthcare providers to identify them.

The carte vitale is the card that allows anyone registered in the French health system to be reimbursed for medical costs such as doctor’s appointments, medical procedures and prescriptions. The card is linked to the patient’s bank account so that costs are reimbursed directly into the bank account, usually within a couple of days.

READ ALSO How a carte vitale works and how to get one

According to the centre-right Les Républicains group, the reason for having a ‘biometric’ carte vitale is to fight against welfare fraud.

They say this would have two functions; firstly the biometric data would ensure the card could only be used by the holder, and secondly the chip would allow for instant deactivation if the card was lost of stolen.

Support for the biometric carte vitale has mostly been concentrated with right-wing representatives, however, opponants say that the implementation of the tool would be costly and lengthy.

It would involve replacing at least 65 million cards across France and repurposing them with biometric chips, in addition to taking fingerprints for all people concerned.

Additionally, all healthcare professionals would have to join the new system and be equipped with devices capable of reading fingerprints. 

Left-leaning representatives have also voiced concerns regarding the protection of personal data and whether plans would comply with European regulations for protecting personal data, as the creation of ‘biometric’ carte vitales would inevitably lead to the creation of a centralised biometric database. Additionally, there are concerns regarding whether this sensitive personal information could be exposed to cybercrime, as the health insurance system in France has been targeted by hackers in the past.

Finally, there is concern that the amount of financial loss represented by carte vitale fraud has been overestimated. The true figures are difficult to establish, but fraud related to carte vitale use is only a small part of general welfare fraud, which also covers unemployment benefits and other government subsidy schemes.

The scheme is set to begin in the autumn, but there us no information on how this will be done, and whether the biometric chip will just be added to new cards, or whether existing cards will be replaced with new ones.