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The first COVID-19 case originated on November 17, according to Chinese officials searching for 'Patient Zero'

Business Insider logoBusiness Insider 2020-03-13 Isaac Scher
 (Provided by Reuters)
  • The original case of the novel coronavirus emerged on November 17, according to data from the Chinese government reviewed by South China Morning Post.
  • The identity of the person has not been confirmed, but it appears to be a 55-year-old from the Hubei province.
  • It wasn't until December that Chinese authorities realized they had a new type of virus on their hands.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The first case of the novel coronavirus emerged on November 17, according to a Chinese government analysis of coronavirus cases reviewed by the South China Morning Post.

It wasn't until late December that Chinese officials realized they had a new virus on their hands. But even then, China's government clamped down on sharing information about COVID-19 with the public, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The data reviewed by the Post, which has not been made public, suggest that the virus was first contracted by a 55-year-old man from the province of Hubei, China. But as SCMP noted, the evidence is not conclusive. The identity of "Patient Zero" - the first human case of the virus - has still not been confirmed, and it is possible that the dataset isn't complete.

The new data about "Patient Zero" is consistent with other research

Gallery by photo services

Chinese health authorities reported the first case of COVID-19 to the World Health Organization on December 31. Later, a team of researchers published evidence that the first individual to test positive was showing symptoms December 8, which is the date of the first confirmed case, according to WHO. 

© BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images a pile of clothes on a bed © STR/AFP via Getty Images

Other research, published in The Lancet in January, found that the first individual to test positive was exposed to the virus December 1.

Also watch: Trump declares virus pandemic a national emergency (Provided by The Canadian Press)

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The fact that researchers are continually hiking back the date of the earliest infection means that there still may not be sufficient evidence to identify "Patient Zero," but the new Chinese government data sharpens what we know.

Other scholarship, published by a team of infectious-disease researchers from China, found that WeChat users were using terms related to symptoms of the novel coronavirus more than two weeks before officials confirmed the first case of infection.

"The findings might indicate that the coronavirus started circulating weeks before the first cases were officially diagnosed and reported," wrote Business Insider's Holly Secon.

If confirmed, the report on WeChat users' lends further support for the newest government finding that the earliest case of the novel coronavirus did indeed originate in mid-November.

Identifying Patient Zero is important for containing the virus

As officials try to locate Patient Zero, the new government data provides clues about the emergence and spread of a virus that has thrown the world into tumult.

"We don't know who the very first Patient Zero was, presumably in Wuhan, and that leaves a lot of unanswered questions about how the outbreak started and how it initially spread," Sarah Borwein, a doctor at Hong Kong's Central Health Medical Practice, told the South China Morning Post.

a man riding a wave on top of a snow covered slope © STR/AFP via Getty Images

For experts, finding Patient Zero is not simply a matter of digging through data and conducting research. It is also a race against the clock. As time passes, it becomes more difficult to locate Patient Zero as the number of infections increases - and to identify the areas that have been exposed to the virus the longest.

"We do feel uncomfortable obviously when we diagnose a patient with the illness and we can't work out where it came from," Dale Fisher, chair of WHO's Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, told Reuters. "The containment activities are less effective."

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