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WHO investigation may have finally found coronavirus patient zero

Published Feb 27th, 2021 3:03PM EST
Coronavirus Origin
Image: Microgen/Adobe

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  • The World Health Organization will soon publish the findings of its official investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
  • Investigators spoke with the man currently believed to be the first person who was infected by the novel coronavirus, discovering that the virus may have jumped to humans at a food market in Wuhan.
  • The person believed to be the COVID-19 patient zero fell ill on December 8th, 2019, and had no travel history.

The first official World Health Organization (WHO) coronavirus investigation wrapped up a few weeks ago, and the early conclusions did not provide a better explanation for the origins of COVID-19. After several months of controversial planning, the researchers found that the likeliest explanation for the COVID-19 pandemic is an animal-to-human transmission. It’s unclear which animals might have spread the virus or when the jump to humans might have happened. In the process, WHO scientists spoke to a potential patient zero. If he was the first person to contract COVID-19, the location of the first covid case would shift to a food market in Wuhan rather than the infamous Huanan market. His story also indicates that COVID-19 transmission might have started well before late December 2019, when the first cases were announced to the world.

WHO officials met the presumed patient zero while visiting Wuhan, The Wall Street Journal reports. The man, an office worker in his 40s, is believed to have been infected on December 8th. He works for a private company and had no recent travel history.

“He has a very, in a way, dull and normal life—no hiking-in-the-mountains type of things,” Dr. Peter Ben Embarek told The Journal. The man’s main hobby was surfing the internet, Dr. Peter Daszak said. Both officials were on the ground in Wuhan during the infection, with Ben Embarek leading the WHO team. Patient zero told WHO investigators that his parents had visited another local community food market, not the one in Wuhan that was associated with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. China said months ago that the Wuhan market wasn’t the source of COVID-19.

The man’s claim that his parents had visited another market dropped at the end with the WHO interview. The scientists were not able to ascertain other details or identify the market. Daszak told CNN that the man’s parents had tested negative, but Chinese authorities should still trace their contacts at the market.

It’s unclear when the man’s parents were tested or what sort of test they received. There were no COVID-19 tests in early December 2019 since nobody was looking for this particular illness. Antibody tests can determine whether a person survived COVID-19 or not, but antibodies often start disappearing from the bloodstream several months after the infection.

The report notes that the WHO team wants to identify the market and see what sort of animals were sold there. They also want to see if any of the 174 cases confirmed from December 2019 — a figure that is higher than initial estimates — had connections to that market. Wuhan has some 400 food markets that serve a population of 400 million.

The WHO investigators said they found at least two types of animals that could carry the coronavirus at the Huanan market, including ferret badgers and rabbits.

The researchers also noted that the virus was spreading widely throughout the city within days of the first known cases from the market. This indicates the outbreak could have begun somewhere else. “There is clear evidence of simultaneous transmission of the virus in other places outside the market,” Thea Fischer told reporters in Wuhan. “It seems less likely that the market is the source of the virus epidemic.” Fisher is a Danish epidemiologist and a member of the WHO team.

This particular 40-year-old man might not actually be patient zero. Some researchers say that an older man fell sick on December 1st, 2019. A doctor who treated him said the man had other chronic illnesses and couldn’t speak. His relatives estimated the date when symptoms first appeared. The WHO will publish a summary report in the coming days that will recommend more studies to determine the pandemic’s origin.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.