Covid-19: New study says ‘patient zero’ was vendor at seafood market in Wuhan

The first identified Covid-19 case was a vendor at a seafood market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and not, as thought earlier, an accountant without any link to the market, a new study published in the journal, Science.
A general view shows the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where the first cluster of cases of Covid-19 emerged, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. (REUTERS)
A general view shows the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where the first cluster of cases of Covid-19 emerged, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. (REUTERS)
Published on Nov 19, 2021 04:10 PM IST
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BySutirtho Patranobis I Edited by Amit Chanda

The first identified Covid-19 case was a vendor at a seafood market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and not, as thought earlier, an accountant without any link to the market, a new study published in the journal, Science, said on Thursday.

The identification of the account as the first patient with Covid-19 symptoms had added to the speculation that the virus could have leaked from a top virus laboratory located across the Yangtze river from the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, the first pandemic epicentre.

The new study adds to the voices that have supported an animal-origin theory.

The origin of the Sars-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19 remains a mystery, and a major source of tension between China and several western countries led by the United States.

Beijing has consistently denied the lab leak theory, calling it a conspiracy, and claiming instead that cases of the viral fever had been diagnosed in other countries before Wuhan.

The new report indicates that the World Health Organization (WHO)-China inquiry into the origins had got the initial chronology of the outbreak wrong.

As it turns out, according to virologist Michael Worobey, rather than the original patient being a man who had never been to the Wuhan market, the first known case of Covid-19 turns out to be a woman, a vendor at the market.

“His (the accountant’s) symptom onset came after multiple cases in workers at Huanan market, making a female seafood vendor there the earliest known case, with illness onset on December 11,” according to the study done by Worobey, who is head of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona.

Worobey argues that community transmission of the disease started at the market. “Given the high transmissibility of Sars-CoV-2 and the high rate of asymptomatic spread, many symptomatic cases would inevitably soon lack a direct link to the location of the pandemic’s origin,” he wrote.

“That so many of the >100 Covid-19 cases from December with no identified epidemiologic link to Huanan market nonetheless lived in its direct vicinity is notable and provides compelling evidence that community transmission started at the market,” Worobey said.

The virologist went through publicly available data including hospital records and interviews of patients to arrive at this conclusion. “The strength of my article is that it draws on firsthand accounts - including audio/video recordings - of doctors, hospital administrators, and patients like Zhang Jixian, Xia Wenguang, Wei Guixian, Chen Honggang, Ai Fen, and Yuan Yufeng,” Worobey tweeted.

“There was a tragic failure of China’s much-touted Pneumonia of Unknown Etiology (PUE) system, where doctors are supposed to report cases of unexplained pneumonia rapidly (I believe within hours) to national authorities through an internet-based platform,” Worobey tweeted.

“The new study will add to the ongoing research into the origins of the worst global health crisis in several decades.

The WHO proposed last month a new expert panel to investigate the source of the coronavirus.

Chinese scientist Yungui Yang of the Beijing Institute of Genomics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences has been included in the Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) - the only Chinese expert named in the 25-member panel.

China has warned against “political manipulation” of the renewed WHO probe into the origins of the coronavirus while adding that it would support the investigation.

Beijing has dismissed accusations of withholding critical data during an earlier WHO probe into the origins in February, alleging that the investigation had been politicised by the US and that the scope of the search should be widened to other countries.

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