Was That Cough You Had Last November or December COVID-19?

Scientists do not know exactly when or where the first COVID-19 case occurred. Does that mean it could have occurred anywhere?

  • Published 3 April 2020
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A popular bit of identical and heavily reshared Facebook copypasta suggests that people who had a bad cough in November or December 2019 — anywhere in the world, evidently — have “probably” already experienced COVID-19 coronavirus disease without their knowing it.

The Facebook posts read as follows:

Quick question everyone. Who got sick in November or December and it lasted 10 to 14 days, [raising-hand emoji] with the worst cough that wouldn’t go away? [raising-hand emoji] it was horrible!

If you can answer yes, then you might of had the coronavirus. There were no test and the flu test would come back negative anyway. They called it a severe upper respiratory infection.

You guys lived through that. Quit letting the media control you. Now give me back my toilet paper, sports, etc…

This post is an opinion, not a fact. I’m asking a question [shrugging emoji]

The message is conspiratorial in nature, implying the impetus for current social-distancing policies is “media control.” As cases and deaths from COVID-19 continue to grow at exponential rates across much of the world, this latter implication is self-evidently without merit, and the notion that a prior cough grants you current immunity to the disease is inherently dangerous. 

It is, however, factual to state that scientists are not confident they fully understand when or where SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, first started infecting humans. Does this mean it’s possible you have already had the disease without knowing it? Scientists say that’s quite unlikely, but that gaps in our knowledge about the origin and timing of the pandemic make it impossible to completely rule out at the moment.

Where Did the Virus Come From?

The earliest reports from Chinese health officials regarding what would become known as COVID-19 implicated the Huanan fish market in Wuhan, China, as the source of the viral outbreak and Dec. 8, 2019, the day of its first recorded case. “Most of the unexplained viral pneumonia cases in Wuhan [at] this time have a history of exposure” to the market, a report from the city of Wuhan read in early January 2020.

Later, however, when a large team of Chinese researchers published a case study on Wuhan’s early COVID-19 cases, they revealed that only 27 of 41 patients had been exposed to the Huanan seafood market and that the first case had no known connection to it. Speaking to Science Magazine, Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at Georgetown University, said that 13 cases with no link to the proposed origin was a “big number” and that the data demonstrate that “the virus came into that marketplace before it came out of that marketplace.”

Responding to questions from Science, the corresponding author on that early case study, Bin Cao, wrote, “It seems clear that [the] seafood market is not the only origin of the virus,” and that “to be honest, we still do not know where the virus came from now.” According to the South China Morning Post, Chinese government documents now trace the first confirmed case to a Nov. 17 illness contracted by “a 55 year-old from Hubei province” — which contains Wuhan.

Lucey, writing in a blog post for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, argued:

If initial and potentially repeated animal-person transmission, followed by subsequent person-to-person transmission, could have begun in October-November or earlier in 2019, then patients with pneumonia due to infection with the novel coronavirus […] could have started to spread across Wuhan, and by infected-travelers leaving Wuhan to other locations.

Does This Mean the COVID-19 Outbreak Could Have Begun Anywhere?

The possibility of earlier cases and an uncertain geographic origin form the basis of the suggestion that an illness suffered by a person in November or December could have been COVID-19. Robert Garry, an infectious disease expert at Tulane University who has published on the origins of SARS-CoV-2, told Snopes by email that the notion was “very unlikely” but that without rigorous, global serological testing (in short, examining blood samples for antibodies), we won’t have enough evidence to rule out that possibility:

SARS-CoV-2 or a close progenitor was circulating in China for a period of time — November or December or even before — before the cluster of cases of severe pneumonia allowed the identification of COVID-19.

Can we rule out that travels from China went to the US or elsewhere and set off small clusters of COVID cases that never got established? Seems very unlikely, but we won’t really know for sure until these serological tests are perfected.

The information available still points to China as the origin of the pandemic. The first documented COVID-19 case in the United States occurred in Washington state after an individual “returned to the United States from Wuhan on January 15, 2020.” The first cases in Japan and South Korea were documented in people who had come from Wuhan as well.

In sum, the likelihood that many of the severe upper respiratory infections that occurred in the world in November and December 2019 were actually COVID-19 is astronomically low. The likelihood that earlier pockets broke out in non-Chinese areas prior to December 2019 is also low, but impossible to rule out with current data.

One thing that is certain: If you had a cough in late 2019, that is absolutely not proof of your immunity to COVID-19. Treating it as such would endanger your own health, the health of people you interact with, and the safety of your community.