LONDON • The coronavirus may have been spreading in China as early as August last year, according to research from Harvard Medical School based on satellite images of hospital travel patterns and search engine data.
The study used high-resolution satellite imagery of hospital parking lots in Wuhan – where the disease emerged late last year – and data for symptom-related queries on search engines for terms such as “cough” and “diarrhoea”.
“Increased hospital traffic and symptom search data in Wuhan preceded the documented start of the Sars-CoV-2 pandemic in December 2019,” according to the research.
“While we cannot confirm if the increased volume was directly related to the new virus, our evidence supports other recent work showing that emergence happened before identification at the Huanan Seafood market.”
“These findings also corroborate the hypothesis that the virus emerged naturally in southern China and was potentially already circulating at the time of the Wuhan cluster,” according to the research.
It showed a steep increase in hospital parking lot occupancy in August last year.
“In August, we identify a unique increase in searches for diarrhoea which was neither seen in previous flu seasons or mirrored in the cough search data,” according to the research.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying, asked about the research at a daily press briefing yesterday, dismissed the findings as ridiculous.
“I think it is ridiculous, incredibly ridiculous, to come up with this conclusion based on superficial observations such as traffic volume,” she said.