New government documents out of China claim to have found the earliest case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in a 55-year-old man from Hubei province.
The documents, which were seen by the South China Morning Post, show the man contracted the illness on Nov. 17, 2019, predating the World Health Organization’s first confirmed case on Dec. 8 and suggesting the disease could have spread undetected for weeks before serious measures were taken to mitigate the outbreak.
More than 250 cases of COVID-19 from 2019 have been confirmed by Chinese officials, who didn’t alert global authorities to the rise in cases until President Xi Jinping sounded the alarm on Jan. 7, nearly two months after the first infections.
Though officials are unsure if the 55-year-old man is the first patient to contract the disease, which is believed to have originated in Wuhan, he is the earliest case discovered so far. The virus has spread rapidly across the globe, infecting more than 130,000 people and killing more than 5,000, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker. For doctors and scientists, locating patient zero is important as they attempt to establish a timeline and possible origin of the virus.
The documents also suggest the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention slow-walked its response, attempting to downplay concerns and silence whistleblowers for releasing information about the mystery illness. Li Wenliang, a doctor who alerts other medical professionals of the disease, was forced to recant his statements before succumbing to the disease himself.
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