Coronavirus riddle: Why tracing ‘patient zero’ could be crucial to stopping outbreak

Despite initial reports suggesting the first case of the disease occurred in Wuhan towards the end of December, it now appears COVID-19 began infecting people in the Chinese city significantly earlier. Leaked Chinese government data suggests the first patient was identified on November 17 – and there may have been cases even before this date.

Medical journal The Lancet previously published a study by doctors from Wuhan’s Jinyintan Hospital previously which dated the first known infection to December 1, and health officials are now scrambling to try and track down the first person to contract the disease.

Dr Amesh Adalja, Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the task would not be an easy one.

He said: “It’s often very difficult to precisely identify patient zero.

“We actually don’t know patient zeros from any infectious diseases.

“But, sometimes we can identify a patient zero for a given outbreak such as Ebola in Guinea.

“In that case, it was a two-year-old child that was believed to be patient zero.”

The efforts to work out the disease’s origin went far beyond academic curiosity, Dr Adalja stressed.

He explained: “For this operation, understanding who patient zero was may help to identify the intermediate animal host. This could help us understand how this virus emerged.

“Understanding who patient zero was also can help us time date this outbreak which would be useful for projecting the trajectory of it.

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“Looking at the first human cases may help understand the evolution of this virus in humans and it could elucidate where this came from and understand if similar virus is in that animal species pose a risk.”

Despite the Chinese government’s data, the World Health Organization’s website continues to date the outbreak to December.

COVID-19 is an acute respiratory infection caused by a novel coronavirus, named as such because of its crown-like appearance under a microscope.

It is a zoonotic illness, meaning at some point it jumped species to infect humans, although the reservoir species has yet to be firmly established.

Researchers believe the most likely source is the horseshoe bat, scientific name Rhinolophus sinicus.

However, the process by which the disease transferred itself to a human host remains far from clear.

Yesterday’s WHO situation report puts the worldwide number of COVID-19 cases at 209,839, with 8,778 deaths.

For the second day in a row no new cases have been recorded in China, with WHO director-general Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus saying earlier this week Europe is now the pandemic’s epicentre.

Dr Gebreyesus has urged countries to “test, test, test” to establish how widespread the illness is, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged to scale up testing dramatically.

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