Satellite photographs of hospital traffic and data on local internet searches indicate the coronavirus outbreak in China may have begun as early as last summer, months earlier than previously thought, according to a new study published by the Harvard University.
Five medical researchers from Harvard and Boston University analyzed high-resolution satellites images of six hospitals in Wuhan, China, and data from internet word searches for such terms as “cough” and “diarrhea” in concluding the virus began before the official Dec. 1 date of the first known case.
The researchers stated in a non-peer reviewed report that “while we cannot confirm if the increased volume was directly related to the new virus, our evidence supports other recent work showing that emergence happened before identification at the Huanan Seafood market.”
In Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman dismissed the Harvard study.
“I think it is ridiculous, incredibly ridiculous, to come up with this conclusion based on superficial observations such as traffic volume,” said Hua Chunying, the spokeswoman.
The Harvard study is the latest international report fueling doubts about the official Chinese version of how the coronavirus outbreak began. Chinese authorities initially said the virus mutated naturally from a bat to an intermediary animal before making the jump to humans, possibly one of those sold for fresh meat at the Wuhan market.
However, in recent months, the Chinese have backed off that explanation since the first patient confirmed to have COVID-19 was a Wuhan resident who had no known exposure to the wild animal market.
A forthcoming Australian medical study found that the coronavirus behind the pandemic showed unique properties that suggested it was manipulated in a Wuhan laboratory and did not emerge naturally. Last week, the former director of Britain’s MI-6 intelligence service, Sir Richard Dearlove, citing a peer-reviewed study by an English and a Norwegian researcher he had seen, said he now thinks the coronavirus was created in a laboratory and was spread through an inadvertent release.
“I do think that this started as an accident,” Mr. Dearlove told the Telegraph newspaper.
Separately, China’s most senior coronavirus scientist, Zhong Nanshan, said efforts to find the origin of the virus have been hampered by U.S. criticism of China’s handling of the outbreak. Mr. Zhong told the South China Morning Post he feared an offer by American epidemiologist Ian Lupkin for a joint study on how the virus jumped to humans could be stalled or distorted by political agendas.
According to the report, Mr. Lupkin has been working since February with Lu Jiahai and a team of scientists at the public health school at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou in southern China to determine the virus origin. Mr. Zhong said “politicization” of the virus by U.S. officials had put the study at risk.
President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien have been highly critical of China’s handling of the virus outbreak and what they say was Beijing’s failure to alert the world to the danger in a timely manner.
The senior officials have accused China of blocking international investigation into the origin of the outbreak, concealing data on infection rates and refusing to provide virus samples to U.S. researchers.
Mr. Zhong said that after allegations arose that the virus may have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Chinese government sent a team to investigate the institute, which houses China’s main high-security pathogen research laboratory.
“The investigators found nothing improper and there was nothing that could show [the coronavirus] was manufactured by the laboratory,” he said.
Mr. Zhong was the first to state that the virus came from outside China, a claim that led a senior Chinese diplomat to falsely suggest the U.S. Army may have first spread the virus in China.
“We need to find out exactly how the virus transmitted,” Mr. Zhong said. “It’s a process of evolution and that can happen anywhere. Data showed it happened in China, France and the United States. We really need to find out how this happened.”
The Harvard study noted that one-third of the initial victims of the coronavirus outbreak had no connection to the wild animal market, suggesting that transmission at the market occurred after the initial jump of the virus from an animal to a human and had already been circulating since last summer.
“This hypothesis is supported by emerging epidemiologic and phylogenetic evidence indicating that the virus emerged in southern China and may have already spread internationally, and adapted for efficient human transmission by the time it was detected in late December,” the researchers said.