Covid 19 coronavirus: Chinese doctor who discovered virus in Wuhan recounts first days of outbreak

Covid 19 coronavirus: Chinese doctor who discovered virus in Wuhan recounts first days of outbreak


The Chinese doctor who reportedly discovered coronavirus in Wuhan has recalled her first encounter with the mysterious disease which presented in an ordinary elderly couple.

Dr Zhang Jixian, a respiratory and critical care doctor at the Hubei Provincial Hospital in Wuhan, has been hailed in China as the first person to report the virus to authorities in December.

Her detailed account of the earliest days of the outbreak, published by China’s state-run Xinhua news agency, comes as the country faces mounting accusations of a cover-up and was forced to revise the number of dead in Wuhan up by 50 per cent.

Speaking through a bright blue surgical face mask, Dr Zhang told Xinhua the first two coronavirus patients had been an elderly husband and wife.

“On December 26, the first patient we saw was an elderly lady who had fever, cough and trouble breathing,” she said.

Dr Zhang Jixian has been hailed as a hero in China. Photo / Supplied
Dr Zhang Jixian has been hailed as a hero in China. Photo / Supplied

“Her husband and son came along with her. Her husband came to see a doctor for fatigue. He didn’t have a fever … We wondered whether the son was sick as well. Once we did the test, sure enough, the son had the lung problem too.”

Dr Zhang said the family’s symptoms “looked like flu or common pneumonia” but their CT scans showed significant damage to their lungs.

“We’ve had patients with ground-glass opacities in their lungs caused by virus infection. But his [the son’s] were a lot more and larger than what we had seen before,” she said.

When another patient presented with the same symptoms on December 27, Dr Zhang said she filed a report to the hospital that warned she’d likely “discovered a viral disease, probably infectious”.

According to the Xinhua report, Dr Zhang had worked during the 2003 Sars epidemic and was “sensitive to signs of an epidemic”.

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She claimed other patients began to arrive with similar cases, leading to an expert discussion with 10 people after which they reported the case.

“We said we suspected something wrong, but we didn’t know what it was,” she said.

An investigation into the mysterious disease was launched the next day, and on December 30, all medical institutions in Wuhan were alerted to “an outbreak of pneumonia of unknown cause in the city”, Xinhua reported.

Elderly residents wearing masks against the coronavirus wait outside a bank in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province. Photo / AP
Elderly residents wearing masks against the coronavirus wait outside a bank in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province. Photo / AP

On December 31, an expert team from China’s National Health Commission (NHC) was dispatched to Wuhan and all residents were told to wear face masks and avoid crowded areas, it said. By then, 27 cases of the virus had been confirmed across the city.

Pressure mounts on China

The report comes as China is under increasing pressure to explain the source of the virus from US and other world leaders.

Dr Zhang’s account aligns with the timeline given by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which says it was alerted to the outbreak on December 31.

It also matches with an account given by doctor Li Wenliang, the whistleblower who tried to raise the alarm about the coronavirus, who told colleagues in an online chat group on December 30 that patients were being “quarantined in the emergency department”.

But since the very beginning of the pandemic, China has been accused of fudging its numbers and attempting to downplay the seriousness of the outbreak, including the fact human-to-human transmission was occurring in the city.

Dr Li eventually died of the disease and was hailed as a hero after his death.

International concern about reporting from within China was piqued again on Friday when authorities in Wuhan abruptly raised the city’s death toll by 50 per cent – or 1290 deaths – to a new total of 3869. That also pushed China’s nationwide death toll up sharply to 4632.

Chinese President Xi Jinping talks by video with patients and medical workers at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan. Photo / AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping talks by video with patients and medical workers at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan. Photo / AP

Wuhan authorities cited several reasons for the missed cases, including that the city’s medical staff were overwhelmed in the early days as infections climbed, leading to “late reporting, omissions or misreporting”.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said such miscounting was to be expected in the initial stages of a major disease outbreak and denied a cover-up.

“I think they are all smearing China and cooking up stories about China,” he said. “There has never been any concealment, and we’ll never allow any concealment.”

But world leaders from the US, Britain and France have their doubts.

Scientists believe the virus arose naturally in bats. They say the leading theory is infection among humans began at an animal market in Wuhan, China, probably from an animal that got the virus from a bat.

More than two million people worldwide have now been infected with Covid-19 and 145,000 people have died.

-With wires

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government’s official Covid-19 advisory website



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