Significant spikes in hospital traffic and Baidu internet searches for terms related to COVID-19 suggest that the virus hit Wuhan, China "beginning in late Summer and early Fall 2019," according to a new study by Harvard Medical School.
Commercial satellite imagery reveal "a dramatic increase in hospital traffic outside five major Wuhan hospitals beginning late summer and early fall 2019," according to Harvard's Dr. John Brownstein who led the research, adding that the increase in traffic "coincided with" increased queries on Chinese search engine Baidu for "certain symptoms that would later be determined as closely associated with the novel coronavirus."
According to ABC News, Brownstein says that the study provides an important new data point regarding the origins of COVID-19.
Brownstein and his team, which included researchers from Boston University and Boston Children’s Hospital, have spent more than a month trying to pin down the signs for when the population of Hubei province in China first started to be stricken.
The logic of Brownstein’s research project was straightforward: respiratory diseases lead to very specific types of behavior in communities where they’re spreading. So, pictures that show those patterns of behavior could help explain what was happening even if the people who were sickened did not realize the broader problem at the time. -ABC News
"Something was happening in October," said Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital and the director of the medical center's Computational Epidemiology Lab. "Clearly, there was some level of social disruption taking place well before what was previously identified as the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic."
"What we're trying to do is look at the activity, how busy a hospital is," Brownstein added. "And the way we do that is by counting the cars that are at that hospital. Parking lots will get full as a hospital gets busy. So more cars in a hospital, the hospital's busier, likely because something's happening in the community, an infection is growing and people have to see a doctor. So you see the increases in the hospital business through the cars… We saw this across multiple institutions."
Other hospitals showed up to a 90% increase when comparing traffic between fall of 2018 and 2019, according to the study. At Wuhan Tongji Medical University, the spike in car traffic was found to have occurred in mid-September 2019.
To ensure they were not reaching faulty conclusions, researchers said they took into account everything that could explain away traffic surges -- from large public gatherings to the possibility of new construction at the hospitals. Still, they said they found statistically significant increases in the numbers of cars present. -ABC News
"If you look at all of the images, observations we've ever had of all of these locations since 2018, almost all of the highest car counts are all in the September through December 2019 time frame," said RS Metrics CEO Tom Diamond, who worked with Brownstein's team.
Of note, Chinese officials in Wuhan only confirmed cases of pneumonia of 'unknown cause' on December 31, however US intelligence officials knew about it as early as late November and notified the Pentagon, according to the report, citing four sources briefed on the confidential information.
Since emerging from Wuhan, COVID-19 has officially infected over 7 million people worldwide and killed over 400,000 according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.
Brownstein says that the traffic figures - while not conclusive, are telling.
"This is all about a growing body of information pointing to something taking place in Wuhan at the time," he said. "Many studies are still needed to fully uncover what took place and for people to really learn about how these disease outbreaks unfold and emerge in populations. So this is just another point of evidence."
Internet searches in the Wuhan region, meanwhile, surged for terms such as "cough" and "diarrhea."
"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," according to the study. "The increase of both signals precede the documented start of the COVID-19 pandemic in December."
The ABC News report then quotes Peter Daszak - president of EcoHealth Alliance in Mahnattan - which notably had its funding pulled by the NIH when it was revealed that they were providing US funds for bat coronavirus research in Wuhan.
Daszak called the Harvard study "absolutely fascinating," adding "You need to look at every possible bit of evidence, where it came from and when it emerged."
"When we do analysis after outbreaks, we find that the diseases had been in circulation days, weeks, months, years before. I really believe that’s what we’re going to find with COVID-19."
Spoken like a guy with a vested interest in the 'natural origin' theory that coronavirus emerged from an animal intermediary - and not the lab his organization was funding.
“We've done previous studies where we could show that what people search for online is an indicator of disease in the population,” Brownstein said. “And we actually saw people searching for symptoms that might be related to COVID: diarrheal disease, cough. That was even starting as early as late summer.
“Now, we can't confirm 100% what the virus was that was causing this illness and what was causing this business in hospitals,” Brownstein said. “But something was going on that looked very different than any other time that we had looked at.”
Read the rest of the report here.