The first confirmed case of someone suffering from COVID-19 in China can be traced back as far as November 17 last year, according to local reports.
The South China Morning Post reported it had seen government data showing that a 55-year-old from Hubei may have had the first confirmed case of the new coronavirus on November 17, but did not make the data public. The newspaper also said that it was possible there were cases reported before the November date set out in the government data, adding that Chinese officials had identified 266 cases of COVID-19 last year.
Newsweek has contacted the World Health Organization (WHO) asking if it has been made aware of the data reportedly seen by the South China Morning Post. This article will be updated with any response.
The WHO says its country office in China first received reports of a "pneumonia of unknown cause" detected in the city of Wuhan in the Hubei province on December 31 last year.
It added that authorities said some of the early patients had been operators in the Huanan Seafood market.
The first patient to show symptoms of what would later be identified as the new coronavirus, known as COVID-19, presented themselves on December 8, according to Chinese officials. The World Health Organization classified the spread of the virus as a pandemic on Wednesday.
Ai Fen, a doctor from Wuhan, told China's People magazine in an interview for the title's March edition that authorities had tried to suppress her early warnings about COVID-19 in December.
At the time of writing, the novel coronavirus has spread worldwide and led to more than 147,000 cases of infection, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.
The majority of those cases (80,976) have been reported in China, with Hubei recording both the highest number of deaths and the most cases of total recovery.
A total of 67,790 cases of COVID-19 and 3,075 deaths associated with the virus have been confirmed in the province thus far, along with 52,960 recoveries and more than 11,755 existing cases.
By comparison, the United States has only confirmed 2,175 cases of the novel coronavirus and 47 associated deaths as of 10:12 a.m. (ET) on Saturday.
The WHO's Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared Europe to be the "epicenter" of the COVID-19 outbreak earlier this week.
"Europe has now become the epicenter of the pandemic with more reported cases and deaths than the rest of the world combined, apart from China," he said. "More cases are now being reported every day than were reported in China at the height of its epidemic."