CHINA has accused Italy of starting the killer coronavirus pandemic – and claims their own study PROVES it.

But Beijing has also previously blamed Spain for sparking the worldwide Covid outbreak to deflect blame, while insisting “China is not a culprit of this virus”.

Its accusation against Italy follows an Italian study supporting suggestions that the virus was circulating outside China earlier than thought.

The earliest reported case in Wuhan – regarded by many experts as the initial epicentre of the outbreak – was at the beginning of December, 2019.

But, a paper published by the Italian Cancer Institute (INT) reports finding neutralising antibodies to the disease in blood taken from healthy patients in Italy in October last year, during a lung cancer screening trial.

This has prompted a flurry of reports by Chinese state media, claiming it clears China of blame for starting the pandemic which has so far killed 1.3million people and devastated economies worldwide.

We know that China delayed announcing its outbreak.

Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesman, said: "This once again shows that tracing the virus's source is a complex scientific question."

Adding that further analysis of its origin "should be left to scientists", Zhao suggested the source could "involve multiple countries".

However in Italy, an expert involved in the study told The Times that its findings did not eliminate the virus starting in China.

"We know that China delayed announcing its outbreak.

"So there is no telling when it started there, and China has very strong commercial links with northern Italy," said Giovanni Apolone, at Milan's National Cancer Institute.

If INT's data is proved correct, it would change the history of the pandemic and raise questions of when and where the virus spread from.

But several scientists urged caution, and said further examination was needed.

“All of the patients in the study were asymptomatic despite most being 55-65 years old and having been smokers.

"This would normally be a high-risk group for Covid-19, so it is puzzling why all patients were asymptomatic," said Mark Pagel, professor at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading.

Italy’s first Covid-19 patient was detected on February 21 in a small town near Milan, in the northern region of Lombardy.

However the Italian researchers’ latest findings – which have been welcomed by China – show 11.6 per cent of 959 healthy volunteers in the cancer screening trial between September 2019 and March 2020 had signs of having already encountered the coronavirus.

Most of them well before February.

The evidence is not solid enough.

A further antibodies test was carried out by the University of Siena for the same research paper.

It showed that in six cases, the antibodies were able to kill the bug.

Four of the cases dated back to October 2019, meaning the patients had become infected in September, says Reuters.

However some experts have questioned the impact of the findings.

"The evidence brought to support such an extraordinary claim is not solid enough,” said Enrico Bucci, biologist adjunct professor at Philadelphia’s Temple University, Pennsylvania, US.

“Much ado about nothing,” added Antonella Viola, professor of general pathology at the University of Padua in Italy.

Both Italian scientists said the antibody test was in-house designed and never validated by other researchers in a peer review.

They and other experts remain sceptical, pointing out that the antibody tests might have revealed the presence of antibodies to other diseases.

“I think we need a really conclusive demonstration that those samples are picking up the Covid-19 virus and that those antibodies were not actually triggered by another virus,” Andrew Preston, reader in microbial pathogenesis at the University of Bath.

In May, China's ambassador to the UK claimed his country was a "victim" of the coronavirus pandemic – and denied claims of a cover-up.

Liu Xiaoming insisted the outbreak was not China's fault and promised a "transparent" inquiry into its origin.

The envoy also hit back at Donald Trump after his fierce criticism of Beijing and denied the FBI's claim that Chinese hackers targeted US medical institutions researching vaccines.

Liu claimed China had been a victim of a disinformation campaign since the beginning of the crisis.

He told Sky News: "You can't have this campaign of stigmatising, disinformation and smear against China, as some American politicians are doing."

Liu added: "It is not OK to say the virus originated in China, it is a matter of science."

And two months later it slated Spain as the source of the bug.

Back in July China blamed Spain for coronavirus, suggesting Covid-19 originated in Europe and not Wuhan.

This was despite a leaked EU report accusing China of pumping out fake news online to "deflect blame" for the outbreak.

Brussels said that "official and state-backed" sources were behind the spread of "conspiracy narratives" designed to exonerate Beijing.

The World Health Organization has said the coronavirus and Covid-19, the respiratory disease it causes, were unknown before the Wuhan outbreak was reported.

But it has said the possibility that the virus may have “silently circulated elsewhere” cannot be ruled out.

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