The deadly coronavirus which has overwhelmed China and the world was discovered in an elderly couple in December last year in Wuhan through a CT scan done by Zhang Jixian, a woman doctor, the official media reported on Friday, hailing her for alerting the authorities about the vicious virus.
Since its emergence, the virus which has so far killed at least 145,000 globally and infected over 2.1 million has become a source of concern and controversy as China is yet to reveal the details of its source or origin. In China alone, 4,632 people died of COVID-19 and 82,692 cases were reported.
On December 26, an elderly couple from a nearby community visited the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, Zhang, a veteran respiratory doctor in a Wuhan hospital, recalled how the coronavirus, an alien pathogen facing mankind, emerged from a seemingly ordinary case in what was stated to be China's first official version of the timing of the discovery of the disease.
Since the virus came to light, there is a great deal of interest in the world about the "zero" case of the COVID-19 which could throw light on how it emerged from what is believed to be an animal to human and then progressed into human to human transmission.
China faced criticism from the US and other countries for revealing too little about the virus which spread to Wuhan and the world like wildfire.
Throwing light on the first case, Ms Zhang, director of the hospital's respiratory and critical care medicine department recalled that the symptoms of the old couple included fever, coughing and tiredness, which "looked like flu or common pneumonia."
But when their CT scan images reached Zhang the next day, the 54-year-old doctor noticed features that are different from flu or common pneumonia, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
Ms Zhang's experience during the 2003 SARS outbreak, when she worked as a medical expert investigating suspected patients in Wuhan, made her sensitive to signs of an epidemic. After reading the CT images of the elderly couple, she summoned their son, demanding a CT scan of him too.
"At first their son refused to be examined. He showed no symptoms or discomfort, and believed we were trying to cheat money out of him," Ms Zhang said.
It was Ms Zhang's insistence that brought her the second piece of evidence: the son's lungs showed the same abnormalities as those of his parents.
"It is unlikely that all three members of a family caught the same disease at the same time unless it is an infectious disease," Ms Zhang told Xinhua.
Also on December 27, the hospital received another patient who also developed symptoms of coughing and fever and showed the same lung images in the CT scan.
The blood tests of the four indicated viral infections. Zhang also prescribed them a series of influenza-related tests. All turned out negative.
That day, she filed a report to the hospital, which soon submitted it to the district-level centre for disease control and prevention. "The report is about how we discovered a viral disease, probably infectious," she said.
Back then, Ms Zhang could not know it was among the first medical reports of an epidemic that has "spread the fastest, caused the most extensive infections and been the hardest to contain since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949."
After filing the report, Ms Zhang cordoned off an area in the department's ward to hospitalise the four patients. She then demanded medics in the ward to escalate self-protection.
The arrivals of another three patients with similar lung images in the next two days further alarmed the hospital, which on December 29 convened a panel of 10 experts to discuss the seven cases, the report said.
Their conclusion that the situation was extraordinary, plus information of two similar cases in other hospitals, prompted the hospital to report directly to the municipal and provincial health authorities.
Upon receiving the report, the authorities on the same day ordered an epidemiological investigation. That evening, experts from Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital, a hospital designated to treat contagious diseases, visited Ms Zhang's hospital and fetched six of the seven patients.
That day, Zhang ordered all respiratory doctors and nurses to wear masks, a precaution believed to help achieve zero infection of the medics in the department between late December and January 30.
According to an official timeline released on April 6 on China's response to COVID-19, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission on December 30 sent out an urgent notification to medical institutions under its jurisdiction about an outbreak of pneumonia of unknown cause in the city.
In February, the Hubei provincial human resources and social security department and the provincial health commission awarded Ms Zhang for her exemplary service, hailing her as "the first to report the epidemic in the province" and recognising her leadership and arduous work in the hospital's fight against COVID-19.
The doctor, however, tried to play down the honour.
"I was just doing what a doctor was supposed to do, driven by professionalism," she said.