Scientists believe a 75-year-old woman from Nottinghamshire was the first known person to catch coronavirus in the UK and the earliest to die from it, as research shows the disease was circulating widely in communities in early February.
Samples analysed by the University of Nottingham show the unnamed woman, who had an underlying health condition, tested positive for the virus on 21 February.
She was admitted to Queen’s medical centre (QMC), in Nottingham, and died on 3 March, two days earlier than the first recorded Covid-19 death in the UK. Her positive coronavirus test results were not returned until 16 March, almost two weeks after her death.
Previously, the first case caught in the UK was believed to be a man in Surrey who was reported to have tested positive on 28 February.
The University of Nottingham study said: “Patient 1 in this study is, to the best of our knowledge, the earliest described community-acquired case of SARS-CoV-2 in the UK, admitted to hospital care on 21 February 2020, and was also the first UK Covid-19 death, preceding the earliest known death by two days.”
Scientists retrospectively analysed samples from the QMC hospital dating back to January, and discovered the virus had been circulating in the area between early February and March.
Their study said this was undetected at the time because the government was restrictive both in its definition of coronavirus symptoms, and over who could be tested.
Prof Jonathan Ball, one of authors of the study, said: “Had the diagnostic criteria for Covid-19 been widened earlier to include patients with compatible symptoms but no travel history, it is likely that earlier imported infections would have been detected, which could have led to an earlier lockdown and lower deaths.
“However, the capacity for testing available nationally was not sufficient at the time to process the volume of testing required with a broader case definition.”
Initial testing for coronavirus in the UK required that a patient had a recent travel history to Hubei province in China or contact with a known case and one or more symptoms out of fever, shortness of breath and a new and persistent dry cough.
The criteria was later revised to include those who had travelled to mainland China and several other Asian countries, then expanded further to include Iran and northern Italy before being removed as essential criteria for diagnostic testing by mid-March.
The University of Nottingham said its researchers were carrying out the analysis of samples from patients with symptoms compatible with Covid-19 to better understand the prevalence and emergence of the virus in the UK.
Around 2,000 respiratory samples taken from patients at the hospital between January and March were tested. Although the study, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, is limited to samples from one hospital, it suggests the disease was being contracted in Britain without the knowledge of experts weeks earlier than initially thought.
“Their results showed that the virus was already circulating in the community and resulted in several hospital admissions and deaths,” the university said in a report of the findings.
DNA sequencing conducted as part of the analysis by researchers also showed there had been multiple cases of the virus in the east Midlands before wide-scale testing was introduced.
It found that the first official case of coronavirus in the area – a traveller who returned from South Korea on 28 February – had probably caught the virus in Nottingham rather than in South Korea as had been assumed.
Source: The Guardian