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Satellite images of Chinese hospital parking suggests outbreak began in August – U.S. Harvard Medical School study

Upending current Coronavirus outbreak assumptions, Harvard Medical School study shows significant spike in car traffic at Wuhan medical centers as early as last summer

By TOI staff

Satellite images of hospital parking lots in the Chinese city of Wuhan suggest the coronavirus may have already begun to spread as early as last August, according to a new study from Harvard Medical School.

The yet-to-be-peer-reviewed study, led by Boston Children’s Hospital chief innovation officer John Brownstein, found a significantly higher number of cars in parking lots at five Wuhan hospitals in the late summer and fall of 2019 compared to a year earlier.

Researchers said they saw “a steep increase in volume starting in August 2019 and culminating with a peak in December 2019,” far earlier than the prevailing assessment that the outbreak began in late November.

The paper added that the findings from the satellite images also “coincided with” an increase in queries on Chinese internet search engines for “certain symptoms that would later be determined as closely associated with the novel coronavirus.”

They wrote: “Individual hospitals have days of high relative volume in both fall and winter 2019. However, between September and October 2019, five of the six hospitals show their highest relative daily volume of the analyzed series, coinciding with elevated levels of Baidu search queries for the terms ‘diarrhea’ and ‘cough.’”

Brownstein, speaking on ABC News, said: “Something was happening in October… clearly, there was some level of social disruption taking place well before what was previously identified as the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic.”

“This is all about a growing body of information pointing to something taking place in Wuhan at the time,” Brownstein 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.”

On Sunday, senior Chinese officials released a lengthy report on the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, defending their government’s actions and saying that China had provided information in a timely and transparent manner.

China “wasted no time” in sharing information such as the genome sequence for the new virus with the World Health Organization as well as relevant countries and regional organizations, according to the report.

“The Chinese government did not delay or cover up anything,” National Health Commission Chairman Ma Xiaowei said upon the release of the report. “Instead, we have immediately reported virus data and relevant information about the epidemic to the international community and made an important contribution to the prevention and control of the epidemic around the world.” People wearing face masks to protect against the new coronavirus outside of a shopping mall at a pedestrian shopping street in Beijing, June 6, 2020 (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

US officials have been critical of China’s early response, adding to a deterioration of US-China relations over trade and technology and pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

The report, which ran 66 pages in the English version, lauded China’s success in reducing the daily increase in new cases to single digits within about two months and the “decisive victory … in the battle to defend Hubei Province and its capital city of Wuhan” in about three months.

Wuhan, where the first cases of the virus were detected late last year, was the hardest-hit part of China in the outbreak. The city and soon after much of Hubei province were locked down for over two months to stop the spread of the virus to the rest of the country.

The report credited Chinese leader Xi Jinping with making the January 22 decision to isolate Wuhan by cutting transportation links and banning people from leaving or entering the city.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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