As residents of China’s besieged central city of Wuhan began leaving for the first time on Wednesday, a Reuters analysis of official statements, data, and testimonials reveals how the coronavirus took hold, spreading to more than 25 areas of the country before the lockdown, some as early as December 2019.
One cluster in the northern city of Tianjin demonstrates how the virus spread weeks before the lockdown in Wuhan, kicking off a military-style quarantine that would take the country hostage for more than two months.
On Jan. 16, a 43-year-old employee of a city department store made the short trip to a wholesale jewellery mall in the capital, Beijing, where she met a client with a fever.
The mall was more than 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) from a wet market in Wuhan that was linked to 41 cases of a mysterious virus, though officials at the time said there was no conclusive evidence of transmission among people.
Shortly after returning to work at the Tianjin Baodi Baihe Department Store in Tianjin, one of the woman’s colleagues fell ill, and then another. By January 25, she developed a fever herself.
Between Jan. 20 and 24, at least eight staff and 21 customers visited the store and were later confirmed to be infected. Another 15 family members, drivers and close contacts of the customers and staff also caught the virus.
Within weeks, the department store would emerge as one of the largest virus clusters recorded outside Wuhan, and the focus of a mass containment effort that scoured surveillance footage, set up roadblocks and traced more than 9,000 close contacts linked to it.