COVID-19’s extremely long incubation period of as many as 14 days distinguishes it from other viruses, and makes it very difficult to discover ‘patient zero’, Dr. Pavel Volchkov, head of the Genome Engineering Laboratory at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, has indicated.
“Given such a long incubation period for the development of the disease, it is rather difficult to find patient zero. One can be greatly mistaken. This is an interesting challenge for mathematicians and scientists engaged in bioinformatics,” Volchkov said, speaking to Russia’s Izvestia newspaper.
“We know that in December 2019, serious cases were recorded of people being hospitalized with severe forms of pneumonia. Of course, mild or asymptomatic forms of the virus went unnoticed. Based on an analysis of phylogenetic trees, it can be said that patient zero probably appeared in October 2019. This conclusion is based on an analysis of the published data,” the scientist added.
(A phylogenetic tree, also known as an evolutionary tree, is a branching diagram showing the evolutionary relationships among various biological entities or other entities, in this case the novel coronavirus and its interaction with humans).
According to Volchkov, COVID-19’s long incubation period (i.e. the period between when the virus may infect its host and when the host begins to experience symptoms) is what makes it so dangerous and difficult to eliminate, and what has allowed it to spread to countries worldwide, from major metropolises to remote tropical islands.
Scientists on the Hunt for Patient Zero
Scientists around the world have been on the hunt for COVID-19’s patient zero for months now to try to get a better insight into the virus and its possible transmission point, with most (although not all) experts believing it to have originated in a street market in Wuhan, China, and possibly transmitted from an infected fruit bat or other animal.
In January, Chinese researchers reported that the first person to be infected with COVID-19 was diagnosed on December 1, 2019, and that the elderly individual had had “no contact” with the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market where it’s widely thought the virus originated.
Last month, the South China Morning Post reported that an analysis of published data had confirmed that the first case was actually traceable back to November 17, 2019.
Back and Forth Allegations
Conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins have also been floated in recent weeks, with a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman making the explosive claim last month that the US military may have brought the virus to China after US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield admitted in congressional testimony that some Americans previously thought to have died from influenza subsequently tested positive for COVID-19, meaning that the virus may have arrived on US shores much earlier than initially suspected. The Trump administration has categorically denied the spokesman’s claims, insisting that the virus “came from China,” with President Trump repeatedly labeling the new coronavirus as “the Chinese virus.” Later, Chinese officials alleged that the US was the first to spread conspiracy theories about COVID-19’s origins.
Wherever and whenever it originated, the new coronavirus has gone on to turn into a global pandemic, posing a danger to the lives and wellbeing of millions of people and devastating the global economy. On Thursday, Johns Hopkins University reported that the total number of infections had surpassed 1.5 million, with over 96,000 deaths attributed to the virus.