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One year on from coronavirus 'patient zero' - kept 'secret from world for weeks'

Health & Science
 Virologist Shi Zhengli. (Image: AFP via Getty Images)

Just 12 months ago the world had never heard of coronavirus - unaware the Covid-19 pandemic was about to wreak havoc on the lives of billions.

But reports suggest that on November 17, 2019, the first person - believed to be a 55-year-old man - became the first person to be struck down with the virus that has now killed more than 1.3million people globally.

The unnamed man from China's Hubei province is said to have been the first known case of Covid-19, according to the South China Post.

In the report, said to be based on data seen by the South China Post, it was claimed that every day for the following month five new cases of coronavirus were reported.

Also, a study by Chinese scientists found mentions of 'coronavirus', 'shortness of breath' and 'SARS' all spiked on WeChat, China's messaging service, in the weeks leading up to the first case being confirmed.

The first confirmed case was reported to the World Health Organisation by the Chinese government on December 8 - and they did not acknowledge there could be human-to-human transmission until January 21, 2020.

Virologist Shi Zhengli, an expert based at the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, was out of the city at a conference when she received a call about the new virus.

Two hospital patients had an unusual type of pneumonia and her director told her to "drop whatever you are doing and deal with it now" - she was immediately on a train back to the lab in Wuhan.

Within days she and her team had discovered the coronavirus gene sequence but they were then 'muzzled' from revealing the truth about her incredible discovery in the fight against Covid-19.

This fuelled fears of a cover-up by the Chinese authorities, who had failed to share information or issue warnings early on.

Ultimately they also failed to contain a virus that emerged in Wuhan and then spread around the world, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Chinese journalist Gao Yu said he spoke to Shi during his incarceration in Wuhan, which was locked down for more than two months, and she told him her findings were hushed up, the Mail on Sunday reported.

The journalist explained: "We learned later her institute finished gene-sequencing and related tests as early as January 2 but was muzzled."

The information about gene sequencing wasn't made public until a week later.

She identified it as a novel coronavirus and within three days had completed its gene sequencing, finding that it was 96 per cent identical to a virus found in horseshoe bats in Yunnan, a process which can take months if not years.

However, the identity of the man believed to be 'patient zero' has never been revealed - and experts say it is very unlikely it will ever be known.

Jonathan Mayer, professor emeritus at the University of Washington’s department of epidemiology, told The Guardian it was “entirely conceivable” coronavirus cases could have emerged in early November.

However, he stressed it may not be because of a cover-up by Chinese authorities - and simply because the virus resembles so many others.

Prof Mayer explained: "We know that there are reports of early suppression of reports of cases, and the ‘whistleblowers’ dealt with rather severely.

"But in fairness, the signs and symptoms of Covid-19 are non-specific and even now, without confirmatory testing, it is easy to mistake this for another disease.”

In the UK alone, coronavirus is responsible for more than 50,000 deaths and has infected more than 1.3million people.

There are hopes a Covid vaccination, developed by Pfizer and said to be 90 per cent effective, could be started to be administered across Britain next month.

Although a second vaccine, Moderna, which has been found to be 94.5 percent effective in US clinical trials, is not expected to be available in the UK until next spring at the earliest.

The UK government is now in "advanced discussions" with Moderna to access the vaccine, but it is not known if the cost will end up being higher for later buyers.

A government spokesman said: "Moderna are currently scaling up their European supply chain which means these doses would become available in spring 2021 in the UK at the earliest."

Boris Johnson’s official spokesman defended the government’s approach, saying the UK had prioritised vaccines of different types with “advanced supply chains”.

He added the government had chosen its candidates to give the UK “the most likely chance of securing a safe and effective vaccine at the quickest speed”.

The government has ordered 20million doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

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