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Finding ‘Patient Zero’ — Challenges of Tracing the Origins of the Coronavirus

Identifying a patient zero in each country is a daunting task, but it's one that could help curb the spread of the virus.

Pixabay, Gerd Altmann

By John Letzing

  • Identifying a “patient zero” in each country could help curb the spread of COVID-19.
  • Efforts to find initial patients are hindered by the nature of COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Find more stories about tracing the origins of COVID-19, from China to Singapore to the US.

Every country that confirms a local case of COVID-19 – and there are more than 70 such countries now – faces the daunting task of tracking down its initial patient.

This is an important means to safeguard the broader population because locating everyone that this “patient zero” has come into contact with can help curb further transmission. But the people contracting this particular coronavirus do not show enough signs of being sick quickly enough to make their condition known before they may have passed it on. This pattern has helped to make each new national origin probe of COVID-19 – as it continues to spread – incredibly difficult.

Global spread of COVID-19.

Image: Global spread of COVID-19. Source: World Economic Forum

While some countries have seen a gradual rise in confirmed cases, others, like Italy, have endured unnerving spikes weeks after their initial confirmation. Italy’s first identified case was a 38-year-old man from a town southeast of Milan who hadn’t traveled to China. Scientists originally believed Italy’s patient zero was a colleague of his who had just returned from a business trip to China, but this person tested negative – and no other obvious candidates were identified.

Source: World Economic Forum

Iran, too, has suffered from a dramatic uptick in confirmed cases of COVID-19, and over a relatively short period of time. The country’s health minister identified an unnamed merchant from Qom who regularly traveled to China as Iran’s potential patient zero. The merchant, who has since died, had allegedly used indirect flights to get around a ban on direct passage to China implemented in late January, the health minister said – just a few days later, the country’s deputy health minister tested positive for COVID-19.

Source: World Economic Forum

As COVID-19 has spread, so has the popularity of the 2011 film “Contagion” – which has a plot built around the initial victim of a deadly virus. Real-life efforts to track down patient zero are proving to be more complicated. Ultimately, it’s an open question whether singling out one person as a source of the epidemic is even appropriate, as it may do more harm than good by leading to stigma or misinformation.

John Letzing is the Digital Editor, Strategic Intelligence, at World Economic Forum.

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Source: World Economic Forum