Harvard Medical School says COVID-19 Outbreak Likely Started in August in China

Harvard Research has shown that the coronavirus might have been spreading in China as early as August last year Reueters reports. Included in the research is satellite images of hospital travel patterns and search engine data. In response China has dismissed the report as “ridiculous”.

Harvard Research shows that the coronavirus might have been spreading in China as early as August last year Rueters reports. Included in the research is satellite images of hospital travel patterns and search engine data. In response China has dismissed the report as “ridiculous”.

Coronavirus Spores

The research used satellite imagery of hospital parking lots in Wuhan and looked at queries online for symptoms such as ‘cough’. According to the research there was an increase in hospital traffic symptom searches before the identifctaiob of the Huanan Seafood market in Wuhan.

The study helps us define the spread and social, human and economic impact of the virus. This has a material affect with regard to the infaction and recovery rate on a longer term basis. A good question is how many have had the virus and survived and immune now. This is why antibody tests (accurate of course) are very important.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, when asked about the research at a daily press briefing said, “I think it is ridiculous, incredibly ridiculous, to come up with this conclusion based on superficial observations such as traffic volume,” she said.


The global COVID-19 pandemic was originally linked to a zoonotic spillover event 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. Here we use previously validated data streams – satellite imagery of hospital parking lots and Baidu search queries of disease related terms – to investigate this possibility.

We observe an upward trend in hospital traffic and search volume beginning in late Summer and early Fall 2019. While queries of the respiratory symptom “cough” show seasonal fluctuations coinciding with yearly influenza seasons, “diarrhea” is a more COVID-19 specific symptom and only shows an association with the current epidemic. The increase of both signals precede the documented start of the COVID-19 pandemic in December, highlighting the value of novel digital sources for surveillance of emerging pathogens

Harvard Covid Study

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. While surprising, this finding lines up with the recent recognition that gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms are a unique feature of COVID-19 disease and may be the chief complaint of a significant proportion of presenting patients

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.

This temporal progression of clinical presentation from mild illness to more severe outcomes has been shown elsewhere. Interestingly, a retrospective study was conducted in Wuhan, China at a hospital designated for the management of patients with COVID-19, which also happens to be represented in our dataset (Wuhan Union Hospital, Wuhan Tongji Medical University). While respiratory symptoms are common indicators of SARS-CoV-2 infection, this study revealed that a potentially large segment of patients with mainly digestive symptoms, such as diarrhea, may play an important role in community transmission.

The initial rise in GI symptoms may also hint at the missed early signals of COVID-19 in current surveillance systems for respiratory pathogens. The standard definition for influenza-like illness is a combination of fever along with cough and/or sore throat. This narrow definition, which has focused on detection of influenza transmission, would have missed milder cases with a different symptom mix that also could include loss of taste and smell. This finding also hints at the need to broaden surveillance efforts to consider novel pathogens that might display a range of unexpected symptoms. Furthermore, the recent uptick in hospital traffic and search engine query data in May coincides with recent reports of new case clusters in Wuhan


Nsoesie, Elaine Okanyene, Benjamin Rader, Yiyao L. Barnoon, Lauren Goodwin, and John S. Brownstein. Analysis of hospital traffic and search engine data in Wuhan China indicates early disease activity in the Fall of 2019 (2020).

Source: Harvard Research

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