China was praised for its early response to the disease
In the final days of 2019, Xia Qingqing joined her parents for a late-night 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 infected more than 1,400 people worldwide, killed more than 40 and plunged China into chaos. Just as hundreds of millions of people should be reuniting with their families to celebrate the biggest holiday of the year, the lunar new year, swathes of the country have been put on lockdown and celebrations all but called off.
As Xia and her parents tucked into a special winter rice and egg porridge on 27 December, even city authorities may not have known that the virus had started spreading around the city.
It was not until three days later that they put out a public warning about a pneumonia of unknown cause which doctors had identified in Wuhan, and four days later that national authorities filed their first report about the outbreak with the World Health Organisation.
In early January, 36-year-old Xia started running a low fever. By then, authorities had closed the seafood market 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 asked Xia about possible links to the market, or mentioned the mystery new illness. Doctors told her to go home, rest and take over-the-counter medication.
She followed their advice but her condition continued to worsen. Her fever intensified, she started having respiratory problems, and eating or drinking became painful.
Her illness was developing in tandem with knowledge about the mysterious new outbreak. On 9 January, China announced it had identified a new coronavirus, from the same family that caused the 2002 Sars outbreak, in one of the Wuhan patients. Like all viruses in the corona family, it had originated in an animal; scientists were already racing to uncover the source.
The next day, authorities announced the first death from the disease and released the genetic sequence of the new virus online for study, winning plaudits for an approach that seemed very different from the official cover-up that exacerbated the Sars crisis.
There were even hopes that Beijing might have managed to stop the outbreak before it had really begun. On 13 January, 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.
Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jan/26/coronavirus-from-food-market-to-global-panic-response-mistakes