Story at a glance

  • Researchers observed a dramatic increase in traffic outside hospitals in Wuhan, China, beginning late summer 2019.
  • Some hospitals saw up to a 90 percent increase in traffic.
  • The traffic increase also coincided with a spike in internet searches for COVID-19 symptoms, including cough and diarrhea, the researchers found.

The coronavirus may have been spreading in China as early as August, according to a new study from Harvard Medical School based on satellite images and search engine data. 

Researchers behind the study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, analyzed satellite images of traffic outside five major hospitals in Wuhan, China, beginning late summer and early fall and observed a dramatic increase in hospital traffic.


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Wuhan’s Tianyou Hospital saw just over 170 cars in its parking lot on Oct. 10, 2018, according to the study’s findings, compared with satellite imagery that showed 285 cars parked there a year later, a 67 percent increase. Other hospitals saw up to a 90 percent increase in traffic between the two consecutive years, the study found.

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Researchers said they accounted for other variables that could explain traffic spikes, such as large public gatherings to the possibility of new construction at the hospitals. 


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The traffic increase also coincided with a spike in internet searches for COVID-19 symptoms, including cough and diarrhea, the researchers found. 

“While queries of the respiratory symptom ‘cough’ show seasonal fluctuations coinciding with yearly influenza seasons, ‘diarrhea’ is a more COVID-19 specific symptom and only shows an association with the current epidemic,” the study says. 

John Brownstein, the Harvard Medical professor who led the research, acknowledged to ABC News the evidence is circumstantial, but noted the study makes for an important new data point in discovering the origin of the coronavirus. 

“Something was happening in October,” Brownstein told ABC News. “Clearly, there was some level of social disruption taking place well before what was previously identified as the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic.”

The virus, which is widely believed to have emerged from a wildlife market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) in late December. 

More than 7.1 million people have been infected worldwide with more than 408,000 deaths. The U.S. leads the world in the number of cases, with more than 1.9 million and more than 111,000 deaths


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Published on Jun 09, 2020