Medical staff in protective suits treat patient in Wuhan
Medical staff in protective suits treat patient in WuhanReuters

Investigators from the World Health Organization who are looking into the origins of coronavirus in China have discovered signs the outbreak was much wider in Wuhan in December 2019 than previously thought, CNN reported on Sunday.

The lead investigator for the WHO mission, Peter Ben Embarek, told CNN that the mission had found several signs of the more wide-ranging 2019 spread, including establishing for the first time that there were over a dozen strains of the virus in Wuhan already in December.

The team also had a chance to speak to the first patient Chinese officials said had been infected, an office worker in his 40s with no travel history of note, reported infected on December 8.

"The virus was circulating widely in Wuhan in December, which is a new finding," Embarek, who has just returned to Switzerland from Wuhan, told CNN.

He explained that Chinese scientists presented his team with 174 cases of coronavirus in and around Wuhan in December 2019. Of these, 100 had been confirmed by laboratory tests and another 74 through the clinical diagnosis of the patient's symptoms.

Embarek said it was possible this larger number – of likely severe cases that had been noticed by Chinese doctors early on – meant the disease could have hit an estimated 1,000-plus people in Wuhan that December.

"Some of them are from the markets... Some of them are not linked to the markets," said Embarek, which includes the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan that are thought to have played a role in the virus' first spread.

"This is something we found as part of our mission... part of the interaction we had all together," he added.

Two weeks ago, the WHO mission visited the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, which has been sealed since January last year, in an attempt to explore how the virus jumped from animal to human.

China has faced criticism for playing down the initial outbreak of the virus and concealing information when it first emerged in Wuhan in December of 2019.

According to official numbers, more than 50,000 were infected and at least 2,500 died in the outbreak in Wuhan.

Authorities placed the area on lockdown for three months at the start of the pandemic, before lifting it last April.