Coronavirus: from a food market to the world

In the last days of 2019, Xia Qingqing joined her parents for a dinner just 200 metres away from the now-notorious South China seafood market, in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

It has since been identified as the source of the new coronavirus that has killed more than 40, infected more than 1,400 people worldwide, and plunged China into chaos. Just as millions of people should be reuniting with their families to celebrate the lunar new year, the biggest holiday of the year, swathes of the country have been put on lockdown and celebrations all but called off.

As Xia and her parents tucked into the egg porridge and a special winter rice, even city authorities may not have known that the virus had started spreading around the city.

It only three days later that they put out a public warning about a “pneumonia of unknown cause” which doctors found in Wuhan, and four days later that national authorities filed their first report with the World Health Organisation about the outbreak.

In early January, Xia had started running a low fever. By then, the seafood market was had closed by authorities for disinfection, and identified 44 patients with the unknown pneumonia.

But when she went to a local hospital on 4 January for a check-up, no one mentioned the mystery new illness or asked Xia about possible links to the market. Doctors told her to go home, rest and take over-the-counter medication.

Although she followed their advice, her condition continued to worsen. She started having respiratory problems, her fever intensified, and eating or drinking became painful.

On 9 January, China announced that they had found a new coronavirus, in one of the Wuhan patients. It had originated in an animal, like all viruses in the corona family; scientists were already racing to uncover the source.

The next day, authorities released the genetic sequence of the new virus online for study as they announced the first death from the disease, for which they won plaudits for an approach that seemed very different from the official cover-up that exacerbated the Sars crisis.

On 13 January, the Chinese authorities said they had not identified any new cases for over a week; and although a first case was reported outside the country in a traveller to China, she had first developed symptoms days earlier.

If the disease came only from eating some kind of infected animal, and the market where it had originated was shut, there was perhaps a real possibility that no further cases would appear.

But it has now emerged that even though China freely shared details of the cases it had identified in the early days of January, doctors on the ground in the city where the disease began were not testing widely for the new virus as the month progressed.

There is growing concern that a failure to carry out comprehensive testing during the early days of the outbreak could have helped the virus spread.

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