Coronavirus may have been spreading in China in August: Harvard study

Travellers line up with their belongings outside Hankou Railway Station after travel restrictions to leave Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and China’s epicentre of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, were lifted, April 8, 2020.

Aly Song | Reuters

Covid-19 may have been circulating in China as early as August 2019, a new study from Harvard Medical School (HMS) claims.

The virus, which is widely believed to have originated in a wildlife market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, was first reported to the WHO in late December.

However, an analysis of hospital traffic and search engine date in Wuhan indicates that there was early disease activity in the fall of 2019, according to HMS researchers.

In a study published on Monday on Harvard University’s DASH server, analysts used satellite images of parking lots at six hospitals in Wuhan to calculate vehicle counts and estimate hospital occupancy trends. The vehicle numbers were compared to trends seen during other flu-like illness outbreaks.

The research paper — which is not yet peer reviewed — also analyzed data from Chinese search engine Baidu to determine changes in searches for the terms “cough” and “diarrhea” between April 2017 and May 2020.

It found that between 2018 and 2020 there was a general upward trend in hospital occupancy — but there was a steep increase in occupancies from August 2019, which culminated with a peak in December 2019.

Five of the six hospitals included in the analysis showed their highest daily occupancies between September and October 2019, researchers found, which coincided with elevated levels of Baidu search queries for the terms “diarrhea” and “cough.”

Search volumes for both terms rose dramatically in the city around three weeks before its spike of confirmed Covid-19 cases in early 2020, the study said.

“Increased hospital traffic and symptom search data in Wuhan preceded the documented start of the pandemic in December 2019,” the study’s authors said. “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.”

The report authors argued that their findings supported theories that Covid-19 was already circulating before the outbreak in Wuhan was first documented, adding that the virus may have even spread internationally before Chinese authorities detected it in late 2019.

“In August, we identify a unique increase in searches for diarrhea which was neither seen in previous flu seasons or mirrored in the cough search data,” the research team said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists both a cough and diarrhea as potential symptoms of Covid-19. The HMS research team described gastrointestinal symptoms as a “unique feature” of the virus and one that could be the primary complaint for a number of symptomatic patients. 

“This symptom search increase is then followed by a rise in…

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