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.
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.
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.
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.