The novel human coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) was first reported in Wuhan, China, in 2019, and subsequently spread globally to become the fifth documented pandemic since the 1918 flu pandemic.
By September 2021, almost two years after COVID-19 was first identified, there had been more than 200 million confirmed cases and over 4.6 million lives lost to the disease. Here, we take an in-depth look at the history of COVID-19 from the first recorded case to the current efforts to curb the spread of the disease with worldwide vaccination programs.
The first reported case and the initial reaction to COVID-19
The first official cases of COVID-19 were recorded on the 31st of December, 2019, when the World Health Organization (WHO) was informed of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, China, with no known cause. On the 7th of January, the Chinese authorities identified a novel coronavirus, temporally named 2019-nCoV, as the cause of these cases.
Weeks later, the WHO declared the rapidly spreading COVID-19 outbreak as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on the 30th of January 2020. It wasn’t until the following month, however, on the 11th of February that the novel coronavirus got its official name - COVID-19. Nine days later, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first person to die of COVID-19 in the country. The individual was a man in his fifties who lived in Washington state.
Declaring COVID-19 a pandemic
In the first months of COVID-19, global health authorities, government agencies, and the public were unsure of how the disease would spread and how it would impact everyday life. On the 1st of March, 2020, the United Nations released $15 million in funds to support the global COVID-19 response. A week later, on the 7th of March, cases of COVID-19 reached 100,000. Several days after that, on the 11th of March, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the WHO. COVID-19 rapidly transformed from being a severe problem seemingly confined to China, to a global health emergency almost overnight.
By this time, the situation in Wuhan had been diffused following the introduction of unprecedented measures to contain the virus. At the beginning of the outbreak, China was reporting thousands of new cases per day, which had reduced to dozens by March. In Europe, on the other hand, cases were rising rapidly day by day, with Italy recording what was an unprecedented 250 deaths in the 24 hour period between March 12th and March 13th. As a result, on March 13th the WHO declared that Europe had become the epicenter of the pandemic. On the same day, the US declared a state of emergency.
The race to develop a vaccination
To tackle the pandemic, strict measures were put in place around the world. Social distancing and travel restrictions began to come into force in March, along with advice on proper handwashing techniques. However, these measures were predicted to only slow the spread of the virus, scientists understood that to overcome the pandemic, a vaccine needed to be developed/ On the 17th of March, 2020, the first COVID-19 human vaccine trials begin with the Moderna mRNA vaccine.
It was clear that initial restrictions were not enough to stop the spread of COVID-19. Quickly, restrictions in most regions became harsher, with the UK enforcing a stay-at-home rule on the 26th of March. Many European countries implemented their own national lockdown around this time. By the 2nd of April, total global COVID-19 cases had shot up to 1 million.
The true seriousness of the pandemic came into light with this figure, and governments did what they could to postpone the spread of the virus before a vaccine could be declared safe for use. On the 6th of April, the WHO released guidance on mask-wearing, as more evidence began to highlight the role of aerosols in the spread of the disease.
New variants change the course of the pandemic
Over the summer, many countries saw a drop in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths due to the restrictions their citizens had endured to prevent the spread of the virus. However, towards the end of the summer, in August of 2020, the Lambda variant was first discovered in Peru. To date, this variant has since spread to at least 29 countries, according to the WHO.
A month later, the Alpha variant was first identified in the UK in September 2020. The discovery of these variants was significant, it showed that the virus was evolving. As a result, symptoms and disease outcomes were changing. Evidence has shown, for example, that the Alpha variant may pose a heightened risk of poor COVID-19 outcomes.
With the emergence of these new variants, cases of COVID-19 began to rise again in many countries and by the 29th of September 2020, there had been 1 million COVID-19 deaths.
Data shows the efficacy of multiple vaccines
Vaccinations were developed in record time. On the 9th of November, trials demonstrated the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccines to be over 90% effective, and the Moderna vaccine was proved to also be effective just a week later on the 16th of November. One more week later, on the 23rd of November, the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca COVID-19 was also shown to be effective.
Shortly after, the Delta variant was first discovered in December in India. Concerns over the potential increased transmissibility of the variants, fueled by a rise in cases in some counties such as the UK, forced many governments to once again reinforce lockdown measures to some extent.
Finally, on the 31st of December 2020, the WHO issued its first emergency use validation for a COVID-19 vaccine, making the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine the first to be available for use. The emergency validation was seen as a positive step towards making COVID-19 vaccines globally available - a necessary step to ending the pandemic.
Since then, the Moderna vaccine and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine have also been approved for use and national vaccine rollout initiatives have begun with full force. As of the 27th of April, 2021, 1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered. The continued roll-out of vaccines in all countries is vital to bringing the pandemic under control and preventing future outbreaks.
Much can be learned from the story of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many hope lessons learned will prepare us for future infectious disease outbreaks and prevent potential future pandemics.
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