The search for “patient zero”,
Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today
The search for “patient zero”
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Daily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.Credit…The New York Times
Germany, facing a “bad Christmas,” moved to impose tighter pandemic restrictions.
Florida legislators voted to curtail virus mandates, reflecting the wishes of vaccine skeptics.
Greece, like some other E.U. nations facing case surges, added restrictions for the unvaccinated.
The search for “patient zero”
A report that was published on Thursday is reviving the debate over how the pandemic began — and the identity of the first victim of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Scientists still disagree whether the crisis began with a spillover from wildlife sold at a Wuhan animal market, a leak from a Wuhan virology lab or some other way. According to a March 2021 report by the W.H.O. and China, the first known case was an accountant who was not connected to the market and who reportedly developed symptoms on Dec. 8.
But Michael Worobey, a leading expert in tracing the evolution of viruses at the University of Arizona, recently pored over public accounts of early Covid-19 cases. In a review published in the journal Science, he found that the W.H.O. inquiry had likely gotten wrong the early chronology of the pandemic, my colleagues Carl Zimmer, Benjamin Mueller and Chris Buckley report. His analysis suggests that the first known patient was a woman named Wei Guixian, who was a vendor in the animal market.
Dr. Worobey argues that the vendor’s ties to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, as well as a new analysis of the earliest hospitalized patients’ connections to the market, strongly suggest that the pandemic began there.
“In this city of 11 million people, half of the early cases are linked to a place that’s the size of a soccer field,” he said. “It becomes very difficult to explain that pattern if the outbreak didn’t start at the market.”
Dr. Worobey combed through public medical journals, as well as video interviews with a Chinese news outlet of people believed to have the first two reported infections. He discovered that the original date of the accountant’s infection was most likely incorrectly logged in the W.H.O. report as Dec. 8. Both a study and an interview with the accountant put his original infection at Dec. 16. (The New York Times was not able to independently confirm the identity of the man in the interview.)
Several experts said that Dr. Worobey’s detective work was sound, but that the evidence was still insufficient to decisively settle the larger question of how the pandemic began.
“I don’t disagree with the analysis,” said Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “But I don’t agree that any of the data are strong enough or complete enough to say anything very confidently, other than that the Huanan Seafood Market was clearly a super-spreading event.”
Inside hospitals during the first wave
A new documentary offers a rare look inside the U.S. hospital system during the early days of the pandemic. The film, “The First Wave,” follows a team of health care workers at a New York City hospital as they confront the unfolding Covid disaster.
I spoke to Matthew Heineman, the film’s director, about the project. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
What do you think would surprise Americans about the early days of pandemic?
Witnessing it. As the American public, we were so shielded from the realities of what was happening inside hospitals during this time. The Times did an incredible job of documenting it, but for the most part, Americans were shielded from those images. Covid was constantly referred to with wartime language, you know, doctors and nurses on the front lines. But when you look at wars throughout history, there’s images. And I think that’s part of why this issue became so polarized, and why there was so much misinformation, because we didn’t know what was really happening.
What did you learn about Covid while making this film?
Imagine training your entire life to understand the human body in a certain way and everything you’ve learned, and everything that you studied, everything you’d done was just thrown out the window. And that’s what it was like for these doctors and nurses. These people were doing everything they could to keep people alive with no tools or knowledge on how to do so.
Psychologically, it was a really difficult thing to witness. And I think we’re now seeing — a year and a half later — the long-term mental health impacts of that on health care workers. And I think we have the possibility of losing a whole generation of health care workers as a result of what they went through.
Was there a particular moment that resonated with you?
One of our main participants in the film is a nurse, named Brussels Jabon, who tested positive for Covid along with her entire family. She was pregnant, and right after giving birth she was intubated and separated from her baby and struggling to stay alive. The baby wasn’t able to go home because the family was still Covid positive. So their cousins go pick up the baby and drive by the house so that Brussels’s husband, Naph, can see his newborn. And as they drive by, Naph is trying to touch him through the window. That moment will always stick with me. It just it felt so otherworldly. You know — what universe are we living in where this is happening?
I’m going to be honest, before I watched the film, I thought, I don’t know if I’m ready for this.
People are nervous about seeing this film. But I think the experience of coming together and watching it with your family, or in a theater, or however you’re watching it, has been really cathartic for people. And since we’ve been so isolated and so separated, to have the space to reflect on what we’ve been through has been really emotional to see.
And for those who watch it, I think it’ll give them an enormous amount of gratitude that a brave group of individuals came together to fight this virus with nothing at their disposal. And I think it will give them a place to reflect on the world that we live in, and how we’ve all changed.
“The First Wave” is playing in select theaters tomorrow, and streaming on Hulu beginning on Dec. 5.
Leaving health care: Ed Yong at The Atlantic explains why about one in five health care workers have quit since the beginning of the pandemic.
What else we’re following
A vaccine developed by Novavax was approved in the Philippines.
The leaders of Canada and Mexico are expected to announce a regional Covid vaccine-sharing plan at a White House summit.
The Netherlands is aiming to keep schools open, even as cases soar among young people.
Massachusetts expanded access to boosters for all adults, joining several other states.
As India limits syringe exports, a supply crunch has buyers looking elsewhere.
With restrictions easing, the Australian Open will play to a full house.
Does that virus test swab really have to go that far into your nose?
Officials expect travel for the Thanksgiving season to approach prepandemic levels.
In Opinion: I’m 87, triple vaxxed and living my life again.
What you’re doing
My kids were vaccinated yesterday so I asked this morning how they felt. I wanted to know if they had any reaction to the shot, but instead of that, my daughter, 11, said to me: “I don’t know why, Mama, but I feel more safe today about going to school.” That was her reaction! In that moment, it became clear to me that vaccinating my kids against Covid wasn’t just about keeping them healthy; I realized that it also gave them the gift of peace.
— Cynthia Blows, Holland, Mich.
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