Coronavirus: China’s first confirmed Covid-19 case traced back to November 17

  • Government records suggest first person infected with new disease may have been a Hubei resident aged 55, but ‘patient zero’ has yet to be confirmed
  • Documents seen by the Post could help scientists track the spread of the disease and perhaps determine its source
The first known case of Covid-19 in China dates back to November, but the hunt for “patient zero” goes on. Photo: EPA-EFE

The first known case of Covid-19 in China dates back to November, but the hunt for “patient zero” goes on. Photo: EPA-EFE

The first case of someone in China suffering from Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, can be traced back to November 17, according to government data seen by the South China Morning Post.

Chinese authorities have so far identified at least 266 people who were infected last year, all of whom came under medical surveillance at some point.

Some of the cases were likely backdated after health authorities had tested specimens taken from suspected patients.

Interviews with whistle-blowers from the medical community suggest Chinese doctors only realised they were dealing with a new disease in late December.

Scientists have been trying to map the pattern of the early transmission of Covid-19 since an epidemic was reported in the central China city of Wuhan in January, two months before the outbreak became a global health crisis.

Understanding how the disease spread and determining how undetected and undocumented cases contributed to its transmission will greatly improve their understanding of the size of that threat.

According to the government data seen by the Post, a 55 year-old from Hubei province could have been the first person to have contracted Covid-19 on November 17.

From that date onwards, one to five new cases were reported each day. By December 15, the total number of infections stood at 27 – the first double-digit daily rise was reported on December 17 – and by December 20, the total number of confirmed cases had reached 60.

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The first known case of Covid-19 in China dates back to November, but the hunt for “patient zero” goes on. Photo: EPA-EFE
The first known case of Covid-19 in China dates back to November, but the hunt for “patient zero” goes on. Photo: EPA-EFE

The first known case of Covid-19 in China dates back to November, but the hunt for “patient zero” goes on. Photo: EPA-EFEThe first case of someone in China suffering from Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, can be traced back to November 17, according to government data seen by the South China Morning Post.

Chinese authorities have so far identified at least 266 people who were infected last year, all of whom came under medical surveillance at some point.

Some of the cases were likely backdated after health authorities had tested specimens taken from suspected patients.

Interviews with whistle-blowers from the medical community suggest Chinese doctors only realised they were dealing with a new disease in late December.

Scientists have been trying to map the pattern of the early transmission of Covid-19 since an epidemic was reported in the central China city of Wuhan in January, two months before the outbreak became a global health crisis.

Understanding how the disease spread and determining how undetected and undocumented cases contributed to its transmission will greatly improve their understanding of the size of that threat.

According to the government data seen by the Post, a 55 year-old from Hubei province could have been the first person to have contracted Covid-19 on November 17.Coronavirus Updates NewsletterGet updates direct to your inboxSUBSCRIBEBy registering, you agree to our T&C and Privacy Policy

From that date onwards, one to five new cases were reported each day. By December 15, the total number of infections stood at 27 – the first double-digit daily rise was reported on December 17 – and by December 20, the total number of confirmed cases had reached 60.

On December 27, Zhang Jixian, a doctor from Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, told China’s health authorities that the disease was caused by a new coronavirus. By that date, more than 180 people had been infected, though doctors might not have been aware of all of them at the time.

By the final day of 2019, the number of confirmed cases had risen to 266, On the first day of 2020 it stood at 381.

While the government records have not been released to the public, they provide valuable clues about how the disease spread in its early days and the speed of its transmission, as well as how many confirmed cases Beijing has recorded.

Scientists are now keen to identify the so-called patient zero, which could help them to trace the source of the coronavirus, which is generally thought to have jumped to humans from a wild animal, possibly a bat.

Of the first nine cases to be reported in November – four men and five women – none has been confirmed as being “patient zero”. They were all aged between 39 and 79, but it is unknown how many were residents of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei and the epicentre of the outbreak.

It is possible that there were reported cases dating back even earlier than those seen by the Post.According to the World Health Organisation’s website, the first confirmed Covid-19 case in China was on December 8, but the global body does not track the disease itself but relies on nations to provide such information.

A report published in medical journal The Lancet by Chinese doctors from Jinyintan Hospital in Wuhan, which treated some of the earliest patients, put the date of the first known infection at December 1.

Dr Ai Fen, the first known whistle-blower, told People magazine in an interview that was later censored, that tests showed that a patient at Wuhan Central Hospital was diagnosed on December 16 as having contracted an unknown coronavirus.

Accounts by other doctors seem to suggest the medical community in Wuhan became aware of the disease in late December.

Previous reports said that although doctors in the city collected samples from suspected cases in late December, they could not confirm their findings because they were bogged down by bureaucracy, such as having to get approval from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, which could take days. They were also ordered not to disclose any information about the new disease to the public.

As late as January 11, Wuhan’s health authorities were still claiming there were just 41 confirmed cases.

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First Covid-19 case happened in November, China government records show – report

Earliest case detected on 17 November, weeks before authorities acknowledged new virus, says Chinese media

The first case of someone suffering from Covid-19 can be traced back to 17 November, according to media reports on unpublished Chinese government data.

The report, in the South China Morning Post, said Chinese authorities had identified at least 266 people who contracted the virus last year and who came under medical surveillance, and the earliest case was 17 November – weeks before authorities announced the emergence of the new virus.

The Chinese government was widely criticised over attempts to cover up the outbreak in the early weeks, including crackdowns on doctors who tried to warn colleagues about a new Sars-like virus which was emerging in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province.

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The data obtained by the Post, which the Guardian has not been able to verify, said a 55-year-old from Hubei province could have been the first person to contract Covid-19. For about one month after that date there were one to five new cases reported each day, the report said, and by 20 December there were 60 confirmed cases.

The virus, which is now a pandemic, has infected at least 128,343 people across the world and killed 4,702. Of those who have contracted the virus since it began, 68,324 people have recovered.

Almost 81,000 of the cases occurred in China, mostly in the province of Hubei.

Official statements by the Chinese government to the World Health Organisation reported that the first confirmed case had been diagnosed on 8 December. Doctors who tried to raise the alarm with colleagues about a new disease in late December were reprimanded. Authorities did not publicly concede there was human-to-human transmission until 21 January.

Jonathan Mayer, professor emeritus at the University of Washington’s department of epidemiology, said it was “entirely conceivable” there were cases as early as mid-November.

He said there were three possibilities: that cases weren’t detected at the time, that they were detected but not recognised as a new disease, or they were detected and recognised but reporting was suppressed.

“I have no way of knowing which of these possibilities in fact happened,” Mayer told the Guardian.

“We know that there are reports of early suppression of reports of cases, and the ‘whistleblowers’ dealt with rather severely. But in fairness, the signs and symptoms of C​ovid-19 are non-specific and even now, without confirmatory testing, it is easy to mistake this for another disease.” Advertisement

Mayer said it was highly improbably that patient zero would ever be identified.

The origins of the virus have become part of US-China diplomatic conflict, fuelled by US officials calling the disease “Chinese coronavirus” or “Wuhan virus”.

It’s widely accepted, including by the head of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention that the virus originated in Hubei. However in recent ​weeks Chinese officials have started suggesting or outright claiming that the virus ​did not ​originate​ in China, but perhaps in the US​, a conspiracy theory that is gaining traction​.

On Thursday, Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesman, suggested without evidence that the US army may have brought it into China.

“Epidemics always have become political,” said Mayer. “Governments seem opposed to admitting that things were handled imperfectly, yet it is only by identifying the imperfections and shortcomings that things can be addressed to do a better job next time. With emerging infections, there will always be a next time.”

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/13/first-covid-19-case-happened-in-november-china-government-records-show-report