CORONAVIRUS started spreading in the UK before the first cases were detected on January 30, scientists say.
Researchers working in Brazil and Uruguay analysed the curves of Covid-19 outbreaks in countries across the globe to try and determine their true start dates.
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And their results reveal that in many countries the virus had been spreading for weeks before anyone tested positive and more than a month before people started to die.
In particular, the research found that there was a delay of just one day between the start of community transmission of Covid-19 in the UK.
The first two people to be diagnosed with coronavirus in the UK were a University of York student and his mum, who was visiting from China at the time.
Their positive test results were announced to the public on January 30.
However, the study has suggested that coronavirus started spreading between members of the public on January 29, meaning the two patients had either spread it to other people before falling ill, or they contracted it from someone else who brought Covid-19 into the country.
Health bosses didn't admit there was community transmission in the UK until two months later – when the first death was confirmed.
Professor Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, said on March 5 only that it was "highly likely" the virus was spreading in this country.
Despite this, the study suggests the UK caught on to its outbreak quickly – unlike countries such as the US and Italy which had a gap of two weeks between the start and the first positive test.
New York saw a lag of almost a month – from February 6 to March 1 – from the estimated beginning of uncontrolled infections to its first positive test.
The city has since faced one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world and around 340,000 people have tested positive there, with the death toll standing at almost 22,000.
Meanwhile, in Brazil, the virus appears to have been spreading for weeks before the Rio Carnival, which was attended by millions of people in late February, but the first case was only officially recorded on February 26 – the week after.
The huge groups of people cramming into city streets for the five-bed carnival could have been a hotbed for the spread of the virus, which jumps from person to person via droplets.
Almost 180,000 people have since tested positive for the coronavirus and at least 12,400 people have died.
On the other hand, some countries, managed to announce their first positive tests before the virus started to spread – highlighting that their governments managed to isolate cases in travellers from abroad.
Belgium managed to pick up the first case of Covid-19 on the same day that public transmission is thought to have begun, on February 2.
Its first fatality was announced on March 11.
The scientists added that Spain and France managed a lag of just two days while Germany picked up the first cases in travellers three days before community spread began.
The scientists, from the Federal University of Espírito Santo and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Brazil, and the University of the Republic in Uruguay, studied countries death tolls to determine when their outbreaks may have started.
They said that community transmission was likely to have begun at least 20 days before deaths started to rise exponentially.
In particular, they wrote that droves of countries seemed to have missed early signs of viral spread which triggered difficulties in tracking it in the future.
Professor Gonzalo Bello, who headed up the study, said: "Community transmission of Sars-CoV-2 probably started in many western countries between middle January to early February 2020, thus long before control measures to restrict air travels and promote social distancing were implemented.
"That quite long period of cryptic community transmission (> 4 weeks) in all analysed countries draws attention to the great challenge of tracking the early global spread of Sars-CoV-2.
UK coronavirus timeline
This is how the UK's coronavirus outbreak unfolded publicly:
January 30: First two people diagnosed with coronavirus in the UK.
February 6: A third, unconnected person diagnosed with Covid-19.
February 9: Fourth person diagnosed.
February 25: The number of cases rises by four to 13. Cluster unconnected to any of the previous cases – this marked the start of a noticeable increase.
March 3: Number of people diagnosed rises to 51.
March 5: The first death from Covid-19 announced and Prof Chris Whitty, admits "highly likely" virus was now spreading uncontrollably among public.
March 12: UK stops testing everyone suspected of having Covid-19, only people in hospitals.
March 16: 1,543 people diagnosed and 65 dead. PM Boris Johnson announces start of social distancing, urging people to avoid unnecessary contact with others and to work from home if they can.
March 23: Britain into total lockdown as 6,650 people tested positive and 359 dead.
"[It] supports that control measures should be adopted at least as soon as first imported cases are detected in a new geographic region."
The researchers added that "intense virological surveillance" would be critical to spot future waves of infections before they spiral out of control.
The research was published online on MedRxiV without review from other experts.
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