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COVID-19 could have emerged in Wuhan as early as August, new study speculates

Published on 09/06/20 at 11:49am
Photo by Chinanews.com / China News Service

Coronavirus may have been spreading throughout Wuhan in August 2019, according to a new study.

This research was carried out by a team from Harvard Medical School, Boston University of Public Health and Boston children’s hospital, and looked at satellite imagery of car parks outside major hospitals and search engine data.

The analysis looked at photos and data between January 2018 and April 2020 and found a steep increase in vehicle counts starting in August 2019 which peaked in December 2019. Between September and October, five of the six hospitals observed had their highest daily volume of cars in the period analysed.

This increase in cars parked in hospitals coincided with questions in the Chinese search engine Baidu for both cough and diarrhoea. This was about three weeks before the confirmed rise in COVID-19 cases in early 2020. Cough is a symptom most linked with the influenza season but diarrhoea is specific to COVID-19.

The study summed up: “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.”

Even on a surface level, this study has obvious flaws. The authors acknowledge that there is no way to directly confirm the increased vehicle volume is directly related to the new virus, and it could be linked to a more severe flu season. Other limitations include the presence of tall buildings and smog which limited more high resolution images that could be taken. The study is still under peer review.

This study has been responded to in China, with Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, saying: “I think it is absurd, actually extremely absurd, to draw this kind of conclusion based on superficial observations such as traffic volume.”

Conor Kavanagh

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