This time last year — as China’s perishing winter descended across most of the country — rumours about a strange new flu were beginning to circulate in Wuhan.
On China’s social media platform WeChat, users had been discussing their coughs and colds for weeks with words like “SARS” and “shortness of breath” spiking from mid-November.
By early December, a so-called “pneumonia of unknown origin” had been identified, and patients — many of them workers or customers of a well-known market — were finding their way to Wuhan’s hospitals for treatment.
As we close in on 12 months of life with this pandemic — with puzzling beginnings that have led to more than 54 million global infections and 1.3 million deaths, affecting almost every nation on earth, upending economies and lifestyles, sparking political tensions — the most fundamental questions remain unanswered: Where did it come from? Who was its first victim?
The hunt for ‘Patient Zero’
These are mysteries that may never be solved, says Professor Edward Holmes, a leading virologist at the University of Sydney, and recently named NSW Scientist of the Year, who was among the first in the world to map the genome of SARS-CoV-2.
“You know, it sounds like a cliche but it’s really needle in a haystack stuff,” he says of the search for the origins of the virus. “It may actually depend on going into exactly the right cave and sampling exactly the right bat. It could be that chancy. It’s not a simple thing to do.”
In the movie Contagion, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character gives the impression that one dodgy meal and clever use of CCTV footage can lead us to Patient Zero and bingo, the mystery is unravelled.
Yet exactly how COVID-19 came into being, and who its first human victim was — the so-called “Index Case” — is a “hypothetical construct”, according to Holmes.
“It sounds good in the movies to go back and find the person who was first exposed to the bat, but the chance of ever finding that in reality is almost zero,” he says.
But that hasn’t stopped people trying.
One widely republished report suggests a 55-year-old Hubei man was the first to become infected with coronavirus exactly 12 months ago today, on November 17. But the information has not been corroborated.
There are also suspicions the roots of the virus could have emerged even earlier.
On September 18, Wuhan’s Tianhe Airport Customs received a report that an inbound passenger “was unwell, respiratory distress and unstable vital signs“. An early case of COVID-19? Or just a bad cold and a coincidence?
Other reports point to Spanish sewage samples from March 2019 that found fragments of COVID-19 during retrospective tests.
And just this week reports of COVID cases in Italy as early as September have been suggested.
Holmes scoffs at these accounts.
“I just don’t find those reports in any way credible and I don’t think anyone really does,” he says. “Extraordinary claims need extraordinary proof. Unless they have the genomic sequence, I don’t think anyone really believes that.”
We can deduce when COVID emerged in humans
Holmes’ resoluteness rests on the fact that for all the mystery surrounding COVID-19, the mathematics of the virus is relentlessly dependable.
While medicine and epidemiology have unravelled the fundamentals of when carriers are most infectious and how the disease spreads, virologists like Holmes can make deductions about how long it has been circulating and what it’s likely to do next.
Different strains of COVID-19 can all be tracked to a common “ancestor”, the implication being that this ancestor virus marks the general period during which the virus “jumped” from animals…