Did Coronavirus spread in August in Wuhan?

New research conducted Harvard Medical School and Boston University suggest that novel coronavirus may have spread in Wuhan in the month of August, 2019, studying satellite images of hospital travel and search engine data. Beijing dismissed the study calling it ‘ridiculous’ as officially the illness was first identified in December in Wuhan.

Harvard and Boston researchers examined the images captured between January 2018 and April 2020 and found a steep increase in vehicle count parked outside major hospitals of Wuhan which reached its peak in December 2019. Five hospitals out of the six which were observed witnessed highest daily volume of cars in the month of September and October.

Satellite images of a Wuhan Tianyou hospital car park in October 2018 (L) and October 2019. Image Courtesy: Harvard University

A rise in online search data on Chinese search engine Baidu for symptoms like ‘diarrhea’ or ‘cough’ was noticed in August last year. According to the researchers, there was a “unique increase” in searches for diarrhea that was not seen in previous flu seasons. Researchers say this is a more COVID-19 specific symptom and shows an association with the current pandemic.

Though they also clarify that while they cannot confirm the relation of increased volume to novel coronavirus, the evidence supports that the virus emerged much before its identification at the Huanan Seafood market. Read Harvard Medical School Report here.

China, who is already fighting acquisitions that it should be blamed for the pandemic, has denied the study. China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Tuesday in a regular press briefing, “I think it is ridiculous, incredibly ridiculous, to come up with this conclusion based on superficial observations such as traffic volume,”.

Some scientists have also pointed out potential weaknesses in the Harvard Study saying that it has not undergone peer-review. They say the study would have been more convincing if increased activity at Wuhan hospitals would have been compared to other Chinese hospitals at the same time. Also, the presence of tall buildings, trees and smog, limited the number of high-resolution images that would have given a much clear picture.

(Image Courtesy: David Mong/Getty (L); REX (R))

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