Contrary to the popular belief that Coronavirus began spreading in late November last year, a new Harvard Medical School study found that it might have hit Wuhan, China long before that — as early as August — based on satellite images and search engine data.
China for long claimed that the virus began spreading only at the end of November. But when the Harvard research team used commercial satellite images to study the traffic patterns around hospitals in Wuhan, it found otherwise. The study observed a surge in traffic around the hospitals in Wuhan since late August. While studying the internet search patterns, it found that there was a spike in queries relating to symptoms that are now associated with Coronavirus.
"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," the research found.
Significant Increase in Parking
The research team counted 108 private satellite images to conclude the research. The spikes in traffic around the hospitals indicated that there was a surge in the number of patients. As per Dr John Brownstein, the Harvard Medical professor to lead the research, on October 10, 2019, there was a 67 percent increase in the number of cars parked outside Wuhan's Tianyou Hospital compared to the same day in 2018.
Other hospitals in the region also saw a massive (about 90 percent) increase in traffic while Wuhan Tongji Medical University recorded a spike in mid-September 2019. The research team "observed a dramatic increase in hospital traffic around five major hospitals in Wuhan late summer and early fall 2019", Brownstein told ABC News.
Internet Search of Similar Symptoms
During that period (August-October), there was also an increase in the internet search queries related to the symptoms. As Wuhan hosted the Military World Games (October 18-27), the Olympic silver medalist pentathlete Elodie Clouvel and her boyfriend of France fell ill in October. Other members of the French team also claimed that they fell sick during the games. The Harvard study and athletes' claims are complimenting each other that the virus might have emerged during that time.
"In August, we identify a unique increase in searches for diarrhea which was neither seen in previous flu seasons or mirrored in the cough search data. While surprising, this finding lines up with the recent recognition that gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms are a unique feature of COVID-19 disease and maybe the chief complaint of a significant proportion of presenting patients," Brownstein said.
"Now, we can't confirm 100% what the virus was that was causing this illness and what was causing this business in hospitals. Something was happening in October. Clearly, there was some level of social disruption taking place well before what was previously identified as the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic," he added.
Since China alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 31 of the cluster of such cases in Wuhan, the virus has swept across the world, infecting over seven million people so far. Over 406,000 deaths have been reported.