Research that may “reshape the history of the pandemic” by tracing coronavirus outbreaks to Italy as early as September 2019 has been hit by a backlash by scientists. One critic, Benjamin Neuman, a virologist at the Texas A&M University-Texarkana, said that besides some technical issues, he was irked by the fact that the paper was written by a group of oncologists and published in Tumori Journal, a peer-reviewed journal about cancer. “Scientists are generally only expert in a narrow field,” said Neuman, a virologist at Texas A&M University-Texarkana. “Likely the peer review would have been carried out by reviewers and editors familiar in some aspect of cancer biology, but not virus research,” he added. Some other members in the research community were more straightforward. “I’m not going to link it. It’s a bad paper,” said University of Arizona biologist Naim Matasci on Twitter. Non-biologists also chimed in. “I haven’t even read that paper … but I don’t buy it for a second,” tweeted Philippe Lemoine, a PhD candidate in philosophy at Cornell University. Science has become an extremely specialised profession and scientists studying one bacteria may hesitate to comment on a study about another because they belong to different species. Professor Wang Shengdian, a principal investigator studying cancer at the Institute of Biophysics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said that while the findings published by the Italian team in Tumori Journal might need to be verified by further studies, any suggestion that oncologists were unqualified for this investigation was “complete nonsense”. The Italian team identified antibodies that could bind specifically to the Sars-CoV-2 virus in more than 100 cancer patients’ blood samples collected as early as summer last year, months before the virus was detected in China. This is their turf because cancer is caused by mutated cells that can trigger the immune system just like the virus. Many oncologists spent their entire career studying how to fight cancer with the help of immune response, including antibodies, according to Wang. US death toll hits grim world record of 250,000 The HPV vaccine is a good example of how the virus and cancer are closely related. This and some other discoveries in cancer immunology won the Nobel Prize. “Antibodies make some of the most important therapeutics to treat cancer. To say [oncologists] know nothing about antibodies or viruses is an insult,” he said. The Italian study was led by Professor Gabriella Sozzi, an award-winning scientist with the National Cancer Institute in Milan. Sozzi has spent nearly 40 years studying the interaction between tumours and the human immune system. “We know that cancer keeps the immune system under control so that it cannot be recognised and eliminated,” she said in a Q&A on the researchitaly.it website in 2017. Immunotherapy has the job of “unlocking this ‘checkpoint’ with specific antibodies,” she added. Sozzi and colleagues were puzzled by the outbreaks in Italy, one of the worst hit countries in Europe. They noticed an unusual surge of severe “flu-like” cases reported by local doctors before the pandemic . Some oral swabs and waste water samples collected before there were confirmed cases also tested positive. Her team happened to have kept a large number of blood samples from patients in a lung cancer screening programme dating back to September last year. Although blood does not usually contain the coronavirus, it carried antibodies produced by the immune system after an infection. France first European country to pass 2 million virus cases Their findings challenged a common belief in the West, if not most parts of the world, that the pandemic started in Wuhan, in late December. Some politicians, most notably US President Donald Trump, hold China responsible for the outbreak as the birthplace of the virus. “I am a scientist, I do not do politics,” Sozzi said in an interview with Chinese state television CGTN earlier this week. She said that their findings showed clearly that the virus had been spreading in Italy well before the first case of infection was officially confirmed in her own country, but it did not determine where the virus had originated.