January 24, 2020, is burned into the memory of French doctor Denis Malvy — it”s the day a man under his care tested positive for COVID-19 and became Europe’s “patient zero”.
Head of tropical diseases at Pellegrin University Hospital (CHU) in Bordeaux, Professor Malvy told Euronews about how he and his team recognised the telltale symptoms we have now come to associate with the virus, the anxious wait as they sat by the phone before the results came in and how, one year on, the patient returned to mark the anniversary.
While there have since been retrospective tests done that suggest coronavirus could have reached the continent’s shores even as far back as 2019, Prof Malvy’s patient was Europe’s first confirmed case.
“Personally, I don’t remember being in a state of disarray,” he said of the moment when his department received the call that a patient presenting symptoms reminiscent of the virus was on the way, nor when an ambulance crew brought him to the Bordeaux hospital.
The patient, who was admitted to the infectious and tropical diseases department early afternoon on January 23, was a Frenchman in his late 40s who had “work and family links” to the city of Wuhan, China, where the virus is thought to have originated.
He had just returned to Bordeaux from a two-week holiday in Wuhan and developed a cough and a fever.
The team sprung into action and when the man arrived he was brought into a “highly secure room” in an area of the hospital for contagious patients.
It was in this room that the first few hours of the man’s care took place, with Prof Malvy evaluating him along with his colleague, Dr Nguyên.
The room was kitted out for the highest level of epidemiological protection, with a negative pressure airlock and all the medical staff wearing the personal protective clothing we have now come to recognise.
“Psychologically speaking, it wasn’t easy for him,” the infectious diseases specialist said. “We did everything we could to reassure him. But from the outset, he was very brave and put a lot of trust in us.”
He said that the team taking care of him was “very, very well-established”, with its members deployed on the ground during outbreaks of Ebola in Guinea, Republic of Congo and Lassa Fever in Nigeria.
It brought back difficult memories of SARS as well, a viral respiratory disease caused by a SARS-associated coronavirus.
“We asked ourselves: ‘Will this coronavirus behave like the agent causing SARS?'”
“With our knowledge of epidemics, we felt that a page had been turned and that it would not be turned back right away,” Prof Malvy added.
Then came the tests. The team took virological specimens from him and immediately sent them to the Institut Pasteur biomedical research centre in Paris where teams worked on them overnight.
Around 4 pm the following day the department received a call to say the results would be available at 6 pm and Prof Malvy and the doctor with whom he had admitted the patient went to wait in his office for the phone to ring.
Prof Malvy recounts the phone call with lucid precision. “I have to admit that given the data we have produced and confirmed, it is positive,” the woman from the institute said.
“So, now what?” Prof Malvy asked his colleague.
“I was sad,” he added. “I saw that it was a big moment for my country.”
The woman on the other end of the line told him that she was obliged to tell the French authorities straight away and that the health ministry would announce the news at a press conference that evening at 7 pm.
“Be careful, when I notify the authorities, it will be like I’ve pushed a button,” she warned. “The news will spread to a lot of agencies and departments, and without a doubt the press.”
The infectious diseases expert asked for a half-hour grace period before the woman told the authorities. In that time he informed his team, the team looking after the patient, the hospital’s directors and gave Europe’s patient zero his diagnosis.
“He was very downcast, 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 woman’s prediction about the speed at which the news would disseminate would turn out to be true.
Prof Malvy and his colleagues returned to his office to wait for the press conference, but all of a sudden they heard a commotion outside, which they dismissed as Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) protesters who had returned.
But when they looked outside they saw scores of national and international media gathered around the hospital — a French tabloid had broken the information.
Prof Malvy said the situation didn’t faze him. “I’ve worked at Ebola field compounds in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the middle of a conflict with sick people everywhere. That’s not simple either.”
He added that his team and the management at the hospital were “united” and protected each other in the days that followed.
As for patient zero, he left the hospital around three weeks later and showed no signs of long COVID.
Prof Malvy said he never presented any of the more severe symptoms of the disease that we have come to know all too well – he never needed to go into intensive care – and nowadays, his case wouldn’t be treated in hospital.
Patient zero returned to the hospital this week to see the staff who had treated him and he even asked if he could get the COVID-19 vaccine to mark the anniversary of his test result.
“We had a good time, a moment of sharing memories,” Prof Malvy said, thinking for a moment and adding, “you have to cultivate memory.”
“We were already warned that we could have a crisis like this, but mankind tends to have amnesia. It is necessary to celebrate the anniversary of this crisis and that we cultivate memory to better prepare ourselves for the next ones.”
Prof 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 distance to go and we must do it with humility, vigilance, and perseverance.”
He said the fact that support treatments have made a fantastic leap forward, as have vaccines and tests have all been key.
But he issued a stark warning. Speaking, he stresses, “as a European not just a Frenchman because at this stage it concerns the whole of Europe” he maintains that we must prepare for a third wave of the virus. He suggests this could come in March.
“I’m prudent and pragmatic,” he added, “we have no right nor business being in denial.”
“We need to prepare our system to handle more cases and if that doesn’t happen, so much the better. If it does happen, we will have been prepared.”