Analysis revives questions about first known COVID-19 case

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The first known person to contract COVID-19 was likely a vendor at an animal market in Wuhan, China — not an accountant who lived about 18 miles from the market, as a World Health Organization team previously suggested — a leading expert in virus evolution wrote in a Nov. 18 article for Science

Michael Worobey, PhD, head of the ecology and evolutionary biology department at Tucson-based University of Arizona, found discrepancies in the WHO's early timeline of the pandemic by reviewing existing literature on the earliest known infections, along with video interviews of infected individuals from a Chinese news outlet, according to The New York Times. 

In a March report, WHO investigators identified an accountant in Wuhan as the first known COVID-19 case, saying he fell sick on Dec. 8, 2019. However, Dr. Worobey's analysis of hospital records and a scientific paper found this was a mistake, and the man had first developed symptoms on Dec. 16, 2019. Based on this finding, the first known case would actually be a seafood vendor who first developed symptoms Dec. 11, Dr. Worobey wrote.

He claims the vendor's link to the food market, along with a finding that many of those first hospitalized with COVID-19 had connections to the market, suggest the pandemic started there.  

"In this city of 11 million people, half of the early cases are linked to a place that's the size of a soccer field," Dr. Worobey told the Times. "It becomes very difficult to explain that pattern if the outbreak didn't start at the market."

Several experts, including a pandemic investigator for the WHO, said Dr. Worobey's research was sound and backed the suggestion that the first known COVID-19 case was most likely a food vendor at the market.

Some experts said there is still not sufficient evidence to confirm the exact origins of the pandemic, however. Past research on the evolution of the virus's genome suggests that the first infection happened in mid-November of 2019. Based on this information, experts said the virus likely infected a "patient zero" before the seafood vendor got sick, which eventually led to widespread transmission at the market.


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