A study published Monday by Harvard Medical School analyzed both vehicle and data traffic around hospitals in Wuhan last summer and concluded the coronavirus may have begun spreading as early as August, months before the first official report of a virus to the international community.
The Chinese government immediately denounced the report as “ridiculous.”
The Harvard study essentially looked at satellite photos of vehicle traffic around six hospitals in Wuhan, and the volume of Internet searches related to symptoms of the coronavirus, to conclude something unusual was happening in the late summer of 2019. The number of patients at Wuhan’s hospitals began sharply increasing in August, and so did Internet searches from the facilities for terms like “diarrhea” and “cough.”
The Harvard authors noted that nothing comparable happened during flu seasons in the past, especially the volume of searches for the telltale symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus.
“This symptom search increase is then followed by a rise in hospital parking lot traffic in October and November, as well as a rise in searches for cough. While we cannot conclude the reason for this increase, we hypothesize that broad community transmission may have led to more acute cases requiring medical attention, resulting in higher viral loads and worse symptoms,” the authors wrote.
The report noted that the hospital surge began almost four months before the “documented start of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in December 2019,” somewhere in or near the notorious “wet markets” of Wuhan. Given the amount of international traffic that flowed through Wuhan and its surrounding province at the time, the study suggested the virus could have begun spreading around the world before there had been any official acknowledgment of its existence.
The authors said their findings would “corroborate the hypothesis that the virus emerged naturally in southern China and was potentially already circulating at the time of the Wuhan cluster.”
Reuters on Tuesday reported a mixed reaction to the Harvard study from the medical community, with some describing the methodology as “interesting” but finding the results inconclusive. One criticism advanced of the report was that it studied only hospitals in Wuhan, which made the correlation between hospital traffic and the coronavirus appear more pronounced than it might really be. The study has not been formally peer-reviewed yet.
The Chinese government dismissed the report out of hand.
“I think it is ridiculous, incredibly ridiculous, to come up with this conclusion based on superficial observations such as traffic volume,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a press briefing on Tuesday.