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Coronavirus may have been circulating in China as early as last August: researchers

Students wearing protective face masks to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus attend a class at a high school in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province, Wednesday, May 6, 2020. Senior students returned to classes on Wednesday in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, after no new cases or deaths were reported from the outbreak that had prompted a 76-day quarantine in the city of 11 million. (Chinatopix via AP)
Students wearing protective face masks to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus attend a class at a high school in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province, Wednesday, May 6, 2020. Senior students returned to classes on Wednesday in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, after no new cases or deaths were reported from the outbreak that had prompted a 76-day quarantine in the city of 11 million. (Chinatopix via AP) © AP

The coronavirus might have been spreading in China as early as August last year, according to Harvard Medical School. The  research is based on satellite images of hospital travel patterns and search engine data, but China dismissed the report as “ridiculous”.

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The global COVID-19 pandemic was originally linked to a zoonotic spillover - the processe whereby disease moves from animals to humans -  in Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market in November or December of 2019.

However, recent evidence suggests that the virus may have already been circulating at the time of the outbreak.

Satellite imagery

The research used satellite imagery of hospital parking lots in Wuhan - where the disease was first identified in late 2019 - and data for symptom-related queries on search engines for things such as “cough” and “diarrhoea”.

“Increased hospital traffic and symptom search data in Wuhan preceded the documented start of the Covid-19 pandemic in December 2019,” according to the research.

“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 Wuhan).”

“These findings also corroborate the hypothesis that the virus emerged naturally in southern China and was potentially already circulating at the time of the Wuhan cluster,” according to the research.

It showed a steep increase in hospital car park occupancy in August 2019.

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

Findings dismissed

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, asked about the research at a daily press briefing on Tuesday, dismissed the findings.

“I think it is ridiculous, incredibly ridiculous, to come up with this conclusion based on superficial observations such as traffic volume,” she said.

 

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