healthHealth and Medicine

The First COVID-19 Case Was Earlier Than Initially Thought, Suggests New Report


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist


A member of Istanbul's Municipality disinfects the mosque in Istanbul to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 on March 14, 2020. y deepspace/Shutterstock

When did the outbreak begin? A new report suggests that the earliest documented case of someone infected with novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 can be traced back to at least November 17, 2019 – weeks before doctors and health authorities realized they were dealing with a novel virus.

The first reported case of COVID-19 was a 55-year-old from Hubei province in China, according to Chinese government data seen exclusively by the South China Morning Post (SCMP). 


However, it is still not known whether this person was “patient zero”, the first person to be infected after the virus made the all-important leap to humans from another animal, possibly a pangolin or bat. The SCMP notes that there still could be reported cases dating back even earlier than this. The data also suggests that at least nine cases, including four men and five women, were reported in November 2019. 

It was previously believed the earliest reported case of COVID-19 was a man from Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, on December 1, 2019, according to a study published in The Lancet medical journal. This new report pushes back that date by at least two weeks. 

It wasn't until December that doctors started to realize the mysterious pneumonia cases were being caused by a novel virus that had never been seen before. Researchers from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention published a paper in January 2020 saying the first cluster of patients with "pneumonia of an unknown cause" had been formerly identified on December 21, 2019. 

Throughout much of December, a handful of doctors attempted to raise the alarm about a potential new disease, but many of these warnings were quashed. Dr Li Wenliang was an ophthalmologist in Wuhan who attempted to inform colleagues about the novel infection through a WhatsApp group chat in late-December. In early January, he was summoned by health authorities to answer questions and was later detained by police for “spreading false rumors". Dr Li died on February 7, 2020, after being infected with the coronavirus that he was attempting to protect others from.  


The World Health Organization (WHO) was first notified of mysterious cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in the city of Wuhan on December 31. Once the outbreak was officially recognized by national and international health authorities, the Chinese Communist Party launched an extensive campaign to contain the spread of the virus. While there are currently over 81,000 confirmed cases in China, there are now more cases outside of China, with Europe being considered “the epicenter of the pandemic."

If you want to get a reliable overview of how the COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to spread, you can check out this live map and dashboard created by researchers from Johns Hopkins University.



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