Nurses cry for a colleague who died from COVID-19 in Spain — one of the countries hit hardest by the pandemic. (Reuters: Susana Vera)
Imagine being the one. The very beginning. The man or woman struck down with the very first COVID-19 symptoms.
There wasn’t a name for it then. The person infected might have just thought they had the flu.
They wouldn’t have known that the virus would go on to infect 2 million people worldwide, leading to 170,000 deaths and sparking economic chaos.
We can only imagine, because we don’t know for sure who that patient zero is or was.
But we do know they came from Hubei province in China and most likely lived in the city of Wuhan.
From there, the virus slowly, quietly spread.
As the world got ready to ring in the New Year on December 31, China alerted the World Health Organisation that it had been noticing some strange pneumonia cases in Wuhan since December 12.
The disease resembled SARS. People were struck down with a dry cough, a fever, body aches and malaise.
Another disease outbreak would be unfortunate — SARS had killed 770 people worldwide between 2002 and 2003 — but Asia was well prepared to tackle it once more.
A warning sign about the unexplained pneumonia cases was posted at Tokyo Airport on January 20. (Reuters: Kim Kyung-Hoon)
Initial reports from Chinese health authorities to the WHO were that human-to-human transmission wasn’t a feature of this mysterious new virus.
They could have not been more wrong.
While it’s not nearly as deadly as SARS, it is incredibly infectious — as we are all now painfully aware.
The mystery of the Wuhan wet market
On January, officials closed the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market because two-thirds of the early cases were traced to the popular live-animal wet market.
The Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market was shut down in January as two-thirds of early COVID-19 cases were connected to it. (Reuters: Stringer)
But theories that this is the place where COVID-19 jumped from wild animals to humans remain speculation.
A study by Chinese researchers claimed the first person to be diagnosed with COVID-19 was identified on December 1, 2019 and that person had “no contact” with the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.
Wu Wenjuan, a senior doctor at Wuhan’s Jinyintan Hospital and one of the authors of the study, told the BBC Chinese Service that the patient was an elderly man who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
“He lived four or five buses from the seafood market, and because he was sick he basically didn’t go out,” she said.
A seafood market in Wuhan appears to have played a role in spreading coronavirus, but no one knows for sure if that’s where it started. (Reuters)
If he was patient zero, then the genesis of the virus linked to bats likely lurked somewhere else.
Where and how it started really does matter.
Director of the infection prevention and healthcare epidemiology unit at Alfred Health Allen Cheng says it’s important to know how this began for future lessons.
“From an epidemiological perspective, knowing the source of this outbreak will have important implications for how we might keep an eye on future animal-associated diseases (“zoonoses”), and what we might do to stop future ones,” he said.
But he also makes the point that for now “the origin is less important than the need to control transmission globally”.
Dr Steven Wylie, an expert in virus evolution at Murdoch University, said the virus may have been amongst us for longer than we think.
“The chances are that this coronavirus could have been in humans for some time, adapting to its new host from a wild animal,” he said.
“The first cases were identified in Wuhan in November but it might have been in people before that, learning how to reproduce and spread within the human body.
“Only when it learned to spread from person to person did it become a problem.”
The Wuhan lab conspiracy: wild rumour or valid theory?
The US Government is currently investigating another, far more controversial theory.
Some in the Trump administration — supported by right-wing media organisations like Fox News — are giving credence to unsourced intelligence reports that the coronavirus was accidentally released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Asked about the theory by a Fox News journalist, US President Donald Trump said: “More and more we’re hearing the story … we are doing a very thorough examination of this horrible situation that happened.”
Vice-President Mike Pence went further, demanding China “come clean”.
That’s a sentiment echoed by our own Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, who said China “owed” it to the Australians killed and sickened by the virus to provide answers.
Both the Chinese Government and Wuhan lab officials have vehemently denied the Institute was in any way connected to the outbreak.
There is no evidence yet to suggest that COVID-19 was invented in a Wuhan laboratory. (Reuters)
Implicit in the theory is the suggestion that the virus was somehow manipulated by Chinese scientists.
“There is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans, originated in a laboratory in Wuhan,” Professor Edward Holmes, a Sydney University evolutionary virologist, said.
Professor Holmes said the abundance, diversity and evolution of coronaviruses in wildlife suggests this disease came about naturally.
“However, a greater sampling of animal species in nature, including bats from Hubei province, is needed to resolve the exact origins,” he said.
But Professor in the College of Medicine and Public Health at Flinders University Nikolai Petrovsky says while there is no hard evidence so far that the virus was manipulated by “gene jockeys”, it deserves further investigation.
Lunar New Year helps send coronavirus global
It was the perfect storm.
Lunar New Year is celebrated by billions of people around the world and in 2020, it coincided with the spread of coronavirus. (China Daily via Reuters)
A new and highly virulent virus quietly and effectively going about its deadly business spreading amongst the densely populated city of Wuhan and surrounding region.
At the same time, Lunar New Year fell on January 24.
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If you had set out to spread a disease around China and the world, you couldn’t have timed it better.
Hundreds of millions of Chinese people travel home or abroad during the holiday.
Coronavirus began to spread just as millions of Chinese people went on their journeys home for Lunar New Year. (Reuters: Thomas Peter)
When it was clear this virus was new and dangerous, authorities tried to contain it — shutting down transport and cancelling public events.
But it was too late to stop many millions who had already completed their journeys.
The lockdowns that followed were the most draconian in the world, but already tens of thousands of people were infected and hospitals were being overloaded — unable to cope with the seriously sick and dying patients.
The world watched in horror but, so far, this was a “Chinese problem”.
Countries like Australia started to take notice and to act, but in places like Italy and South Korea, the damage was already being done.
Prosperity and a globalised world ensured the rest of the planet would soon feel China’s fear and pain.
The ripples of infection spread out quickly
A woman in Thailand who had travelled from Wuhan was the first person outside China to contract the coronavirus.
New York hospitals have been overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases as the city’s infection rate soared. (Reuters: Caitlin Ochs)
The 73-year-old said she didn’t go to any marketplace. She insists she only ate at restaurants but noticed people coughing around her.
Then, in South Korea, a member of a secretive religious sect, who had never been to Wuhan, caught the disease.
The woman was nicknamed “Public Harm Auntie” after she went to lunch with friends, got a scrub at a spa and argued with public health officials before finally submitting to a COVID-19 test.
South Korea has reported 10,638 cases and 237 deaths so far.
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In the US, a man who had been in Wuhan province returned to his home in Washington state on January 19.
He was still asymptomatic when he arrived home, but he’d read about coronavirus in the news and when he started feeling ill, he reportedly took himself straight to a doctor.
America’s probable patient zero and his caregivers may have done a lot of things right, but it did not stop an explosion of cases in the US as others returned from overseas bringing the virus with them.
The ripples of infection spread out quickly.
The land of the free has now become the number one source of COVID-19 infections and deaths.
Super-spreaders, ‘biological bombs’ and cruises
In Italy, a man in his late 30s developed a strange case of pneumonia and went to hospital in the northern region of Lombardy on February 18.
Patient One, as he is known in Italy, had COVID-19 but was asymptomatic for close to a month — playing soccer, going jogging, attending dinner parties.
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But the man had no known contacts with someone from China, and probably caught the disease from someone else in Italy.
Patient One may well have been Patient 10 or 20 or 100.
Coronavirus was a disaster for Italy, which has an older population. (Reuters: Flavio Lo Scalzo)
Coronavirus soon became a catastrophe in Italy: ripping through the country’s older, frailer population, killing at least 24,000 people and infecting about 180,000 others.
In Australia, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 came from a man in his fifties who’d travelled from Wuhan to Melbourne on January 25.
But the country’s biggest clusters came not from outside our borders, but from within our own communities.
People were criticised for flocking to Bondi Beach in March despite pleas from state officials to respect social distancing measures. (ABC News: Victoria Pengilley)
The fateful decision to let the Ruby Princess cruise ship dock in Sydney on March 19 spread more than 400 cases of COVID-19 into Australia — at one point that accounted for 10 per cent of all Australian infections.
In fact, mass events seem to have acted as an extreme accelerant creating huge case spikes across the globe.
A football game between Northern Italy’s Atalanta and Spain’s Valencia was described as a “biological bomb” spreading the virus across two of the hardest-hit countries.
A third of all cases in India have been linked to an illicit gathering of Sunni Muslims in Delhi.
Can we prevent another pandemic in our lifetime?
There was nothing inevitable about the emergence of COVID-19.
The spread of today’s scourge may seem breathtaking in its scale and carnage, but in one way we are lucky.
Imagine if COVID-19 was as lethal as SARS and MERS, but with its infectiousness.
In that scenario, without a vaccine, we would be dealing with a modern-day plague with global deaths measured possibly in their hundreds of millions.
Some experts suggest the coronavirus exposure comes mainly from our desire to eat meat and the risk of transmission and mutation of viruses that comes with raising animals.
Combined with a globalised world where people and goods flow freely, any nasty bug or germ can hitch rides to all ports in no time at all.
If prevention of new animal-derived viruses is not possible, then preparedness for the next potential pandemic is vital.
Mindy Brock and Ben Cayer, married nurses in Florida, take a moment to comfort each other during hospital rounds. (AP: Nicole Hubbard )
The ability to test and trace has proven pivotal in the fight to control, suppress and possibly eliminate any new threat.
Transparent political systems at times of crisis are lifesavers.
There were concerns many might have failed to appreciate the risk in China in the early days due to an attempt to underplay COVID-19.
And the speed and effectiveness of decisions by countries can save or condemn thousands.
Even the richest country in the world failed to act fast enough to prevent a disaster.
Unclaimed COVID-19 victims will be buried on New York’s Hart Island until the pandemic has passed and loved ones can arrange proper funerals. (Reuters: Lucas Jackson)
In New York, the pits filled with coffins tell a story of failure.
What does life look like in a post-coronavirus world?
If and when this virus is history, what of our old lives will it take with it?
Thai babies born in the age of coronavirus were given face shields to protect them from COVID-19. (Reuters: Athit Perawongmetha)
Who knows when a handshake with a new acquaintance will once again happen spontaneously.
When will we go back to the beach and lie on the sand among strangers without feeling nervous?
It’s hard to imagine going to the supermarket and giving an avocado an inquisitive squeeze without immediately worrying about what we’ve touched or what we’ve left behind.
But along with our new trepidation, perhaps we will hold onto some coronavirus-induced gratitude.
We’ll be thankful for visits with elderly relatives and beers at the pub, for our jobs and our security, for shelf-stackers at supermarkets and for our health workers.
We might also further appreciate our own fragile health, which we’ve been reminded can be lost in an instant.
The pandemic has changed the way we lived, with little girls doing their ballet classes online. (Reuters: Caitlin Ochs)
It’s possible the old rhythms will quickly resume once the storm passes.
But it really feels like this might inspire a reset, a long, hard, isolation-induced look at ourselves, our community, our planet.
And from the horrors of COVID-19 might just emerge something better for us all. Maybe.
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