The term refers to the first human infected by a disease which is new and first to humankind.


NEW DELHI: The mystery around “Patient Zero” in the current coronavirus pandemic outbreak which has affected more than 160 countries, still continues as virologists and medical experts work tirelessly to develop a vaccine for this virus that has snuffed out over 8,500 lives globally.

“Patient Zero” is a term used to describe the first human infected by a disease which is new and first to humankind. “Patient Zero” is also called as the “Index Case” in medical parlance.

According to epidemiologists and virologists, the importance of “Patient Zero” in an outbreak like coronavirus is paramount to trace the origin and exact initial genetical structure of the virus and identify the exact lineage of transmission.

Dr Kamalesh Sarkar, director and scientist at the Indian Council of Medical Research’s (ICMR) Institute of Occupational Health, told The Sunday Guardian, “The importance of Patient Zero in such a case is important for us to study several important things. Patient Zero would help us understand the exact origin and the time period of the disease, how it was transferred to humans, which animal exactly was it. All this information is very critical to medical researchers who are working on vaccines or studying the nature and genetical structure of the virus.”

Dr Sarkar further added that “Patient Zero” would also help “us understand and study if there has been a change in the genetical structure of the virus”.

“If Patient Zero is found, it would help us understand the genetical characterisation and the genomes of the virus. Has the virus changed its genetical character with its change in geographical location, or has it changed its character and structure from what it was in the first case to what we have today? All these mysteries could be solved if we can identify the first case,” Dr Sarkar said.

The first official confirmation of coronavirus which originated in China’s Wuhan came only on 31 December, while many experts and international media reports suggest that the virus could have been in humans much before the date that the Chinese government officially announced the problem.

Many reports also suggest that people in Wuhan had complaints of similar symptoms of what we now know of being that of the coronavirus, but the Chinese government had passed it on as normal pneumonia.

A study by Chinese researchers published in the Lancet Medical journal claimed that some of the first cases of coronavirus were being reported in Wuhan from as early as 1 December 2019.  Also, consider the case of Dr Li Wenliang who was one of the first whistleblowers of this deadly outbreak, but who was soon to be reprimanded by the Chinese officials for alleged “rumour mongering”. He later contracted the disease and succumbed to his illness in February.

According to reports in the Chinese media, the Chinese government also does not know who the first human carrier of Covid-19 was.

Many also believe that if China had been responsible enough to inform and alert the world about such a transfer of virus from animal to humans, a lot could have been controlled. Experts also still blame China of hiding facts for which the “Index Case” has possibly been lost.

Dr K.K. Aggarwal, former president of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), told The Sunday Guardian, “As of now, I do not think we will now ever come to know who was the Index case. In an outbreak like this, the Index case would be the one who was first infected and then we have the primary case who are those who got infected by the Index case; subsequently, the secondary case and then community outbreak. We are at a stage of community outbreak. China only informed everyone when multiple cases started coming to the hospital; therefore, it is very difficult now to trace the Index case.” Dr Aggarwal also said that there are many asymptomatic cases in the corona outbreak, who could be potential carriers and not themselves be affected by it and that China only reported when they had a huge spurt of cases of pneumonia-like symptoms in Wuhan. He further added, “We also do not know whether the Index case of this coronavirus was an animal or just passed on to humans. Was it only one animal that was having it or multiple animals? There are a lot of questions which still remain unanswered.” The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country has reached 283, the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said on Saturday. Of the 283, 244 are Indian nationals, while 39 are foreigners. Twenty-three have recovered and have been discharged from hospital, while one person has migrated to another country. Four casualties have been reported in India so far. The data was put out by the Health Ministry at 4:45 p.m.

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