COVID-19 one year on: How we reacted to the first reports of a 'mystery virus' in China

It was one year ago today Newshub first reported on the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

But none of those three words appear in the article, published on January 6, 2020, under the headline 'Mystery virus spreading in central China puts dozens in hospital'. 

No one at that stage knew it was a coronavirus, nor that it would become a pandemic that would leave at least 1.8 million dead in the following 12 months, devastate the world economy and change our lives forever. 

At the time of the report, there had been only 59 confirmed cases - 0.00007 percent of the present total of 86 million. No one had yet died, but the situation was serious enough to prompt the typically secretive Chinese authorities to report it to the World Health Organization. 

"The clinical signs and symptoms are mainly fever, with a few patients having difficulty in breathing, and chest radiographs showing invasive lesions of both lungs," the WHO said on January 5 in its first public acknowledgement of the disease, unaware of the lingering effects of what would later be dubbed 'long COVID'.

While airports in Asian nations like Singapore and Taiwan immediately upped screening measures at airports for travellers from China, the WHO said at this stage it would not recommend against travel to or from Wuhan.

To put it in perspective, the same week we reported on the first outbreak in Wuhan, the other big stories Newshub covered were Australia's bushfires turning the skies over New Zealand a hazy orange, fears World War III would break out over the US assassination of an Iranian general, and the 'pancake board' craze sweeping social media. 

A man wears a mask in Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic.
A man wears a mask in Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic. Photo credit: Getty

Those who commented on Newshub's Facebook page mostly didn't take it seriously.

"Here we go," wrote one person, sharing a scene from Brad Pitt zombie thriller World War Z. "2020 lesssssgo," said another. Three people even left 'heart' reactions on the post.

"Welcome to 2020 it's gonna be an adventure!" read one particularly prescient post.

The first confirmed coronavirus death wouldn't happen until the following week.

Chinese health officials said they had ruled out SARS - which killed 774 people in the early 2000s - as the cause of the outbreak. Soon after it was discovered to be a  coronavirus closely related to SARS, and was dubbed severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 - SARS-CoV-2 for short. 

Following the WHO's advice, New Zealand didn't put in any extra measures to screen visitors from Wuhan or China, nor recommend against travel there. 

An unscientific web poll on the Newshub site on January 23 found more than a third of you weren't worried about it at all. Nor was prominent Northland doctor Lance O'Sullivan, who was in China in late January - when there were just a few hundred cases - said he had "more chance of getting measles in Auckland than I do of getting coronavirus in Shenzhen". 

"I am concerned that we're going to get pushed down this track of going crazy on this hysteria, we're going to create these pandemic camps," he told The AM Show a few days later, after New Zealand set up a COVID-19 monitoring team to keep an eye on the outbreak. "The real issue is, we've got other, bigger problems that we should be looking at... a lot of hysteria, a lot of beat up." He later admitted he got it wrong

One person who didn't was University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker, who as early as January 21 said it would be "very responsible to start looking at what elements of our pandemic plan should be". He would later be honoured for his role in New Zealand' successful response at quashing outbreaks of the deadly virus. 

In the final week of January when there were just 1441 confirmed cases, Harvard epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding ominously said the virus could be "thermonuclear pandemic level bad", warning of "possibly an unchecked pandemic that the world has not seen since the 1918 Spanish Influenza".

"Some folks think I'm trying to incite fear," he wrote on Twitter. "I'm not trying - I'm a scientist. This [virus] is serious."

The WHO wouldn't declare the outbreak a pandemic until mid-March. 

A year on, it's clear just how devastating the virus has been - but back in early January 2020, it was just another story.