January 24, 2020 is burned in the memory of French doctor Denis Malvy: This is the day a patient in your care tested positive for COVID-19 and became Europe’s “patient zero”.
Professor Malvy, head of tropical diseases at the Pellegrin University Hospital (CHU) in Bordeaux, explains Euronews how he and his team recognized at the time the symptoms that we now associate with the virus, the agonizing wait by the phone before the results arrived and how, a year later, the patient has returned to remember the anniversary of that.
Although retrospective tests have since been carried out suggesting that the coronavirus could have reached the shores of the continent even in 2019, Professor Malvy’s patient was the first confirmed case in Europe.
“Personally, I do not remember being confused,” explains the doctor about the moment his department received the call to report that a patient had symptoms reminiscent of the virus. Nor, he says, when an ambulance team brought him to the Bordeaux hospital.
The patient, who was admitted to the department of infectious and tropical diseases in the early afternoon of January 23, was a Frenchman in his 40s who had “work and family ties” with the city of Wuhan (China), where he you think the virus originated.
He had just returned to Bordeaux from a two-week vacation in Wuhan and developed a cough and fever. The team started up and when the man arrived he was taken to a “high security room” in an area of the hospital for contagious patients.
The first hours of attention to the man took place in this room, in which Professor Malvy evaluated him together with his colleague, Dr. Nguyên. The room was equipped with the highest level of epidemiological protection, with a negative pressure lock and all the medical personnel with the personal protective clothing that we already know.
“Psychologically speaking, it wasn’t easy for him”explains the infectious disease specialist: “We did everything possible to reassure him. But from the beginning he was very brave and trusted us a lot.”
Malvy says his team was “very, very well prepared,” with members deployed on the ground during the Ebola outbreaks in Guinea, the Republic of Congo and Lassa fever in Nigeria.
It also brought back difficult memories of SARS, a viral respiratory illness caused by another coronavirus: “We asked ourselves: ‘Will this coronavirus behave as the causative agent of SARS?'” “With our knowledge of the epidemics, we felt that a page had been turned and that it would not be turned immediately,” Malvy laments.
Then came the tests. The team took virological samples from the patient and sent them immediately to the biomedical research center of the Institut Pasteur in Paris, where teams worked on them overnight.
Around 4 p.m. the next day, the department received a call to say that the results would be available at 6 p.m. and Professor Malvy and the doctor with whom he had admitted the patient went to wait in his office for the phone to ring.
The doctor recounts the phone call with lucid precision: “I have to affirm that, given the data we have obtained and confirmed, it is positive,” the woman from the institute told him.
“So now what?” Professor Malvy asked his colleague. “I was sad,” he added. “I saw that it was a great moment for my country.”
The woman on the other end of the line told her that she was obliged to inform the French authorities immediately and that the Ministry of Health would announce the news at a press conference that same afternoon at 7:00 p.m.
“Be careful, when you notify the authorities, it will be as if you pressed a button,” he warned, “the news will spread to a lot of agencies and departments, and certainly to the press.”
The infectious disease expert asked for a grace period of half an hour before the woman notified authorities. At that time, he informed his team, the team that cared for the patient, the hospital directors and gave the zero patient in Europe his diagnosis.
“He was very dejected, quite tired, of course, but we had already spent a lot of time with him and we were all prepared for this information,” he said. “He was relatively serene.”
The prediction about how quickly the news would spread would turn out to be true.
Professor Malvy and his colleagues returned to his office to await the press conference, but suddenly they heard an uproar outside, which they dismissed as protesters from the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) who had returned.
But when they looked outside they saw dozens of national and international media gathered around the hospital: a French tabloid had advanced the information.
Professor Malvy assures that the situation did not worry him. “I have worked in field complexes against Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the middle of a conflict, with patients everywhere. That is not easy either.”explains this doctor who assures that his team and the hospital management were “united” and protected each other in the following days.
As for patient zero, he left the hospital about three weeks later and did not show any signs of prolonged COVID.
Malvy said he never had any of the more serious symptoms of the disease that we know well – he never needed intensive care – and that today his case would not be treated in hospital.
Patient zero returned to the hospital this week to see the staff who had treated him and even asked if he could receive the COVID-19 vaccine to mark the anniversary of his test result. “We had a good time, a moment to share memories,” says Malvy, who reflects for a moment and adds: “you have to cultivate memory.”
“We have already been warned that we could have a crisis like this one, but humanity tends to have amnesia. We need to celebrate the anniversary of this crisis and cultivate our memory to better prepare for the next ones.”
Malvy offers a message of hope for the future of the pandemic: “We are still in the tunnel, but we see the end. It is still there. There is still a way to go and we must do it with humility, vigilance and perseverance.”
He says the fact that supportive treatments have taken a fantastic leap, like vaccines and tests, has been key. But he issues a harsh warning: “as a European, not just as a Frenchman, because right now it affects all of Europe,” he argues that we must prepare for a third wave of the virus and suggests that it could arrive in March.
“I am prudent and pragmatic,” he added, “we have no right to be in denial.” “We have to prepare our system to handle more cases and if that doesn’t happen … Better, if it happens, we will have been prepared.”