Image by Andreas Lischka via Pixabay/Futurism

The COVID-19 outbreak didn't make a huge international splash until late January, when China quarantined the entire city of Wuhan, where the epidemic had emerged — now, evidence is emerging that the disease started spreading in late 2019.

Notably, the South China Morning Post is now reporting that Chinese authorities may have identified "patient zero" — the first human, in other words, to catch the SARS-CoV-2 virus — in an infection that dates back to mid-November.

The scoop is already making waves in the scientific community. Here's Mount Sinai researcher Florian Krammer:

According to government data per the Morning Post, the first known person to catch the bug is a 55-year-old man from Hubei Province.

That's a tantalizing detail, one that could help scientists identify the source of the novel virus. The predominant theory among researchers is that it spread to humans from an animal, possibly a bat.

But, the newspaper makes clear, it's also possible that there are human cases of the disease that date back even earlier than the aforementioned Hubei man.

Critics say that ever-earlier reported cases of the coronavirus show that the Chinese government was more concerned with controlling the narrative of the outbreak than mitigating its spread. Here's a former New York Times reporter in Hong Kong:

And others in the research community, like this nuclear physicist at the Large Hadron Collider, are realizing how close they came to catching the virus.

One thing we now know for sure: This outbreak was brewing long before it made international news.