China says Harvard study claiming novel coronavirus could have spread in China as early as August 2019 ‘ridiculous’

Hemani Sheth Mumbai | Updated on June 09, 2020

The novel coronavirus could have been spreading in China as early as August 2019 according to a recent study by the Harvard Medical School.

The study has claimed that the presence of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan could have preceded the Covid-19 outbreak based on satellite images of hospital travel patterns and search engine traffic for certain terms. China has dismissed the claims made by the study according to a Reuters report.

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’.

Findings of the study

“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,” the report reads.

The research uses ‘previously validated data streams’ such as satellite images of hospital parking lots and queries on the country’s search engine Baidu of disease-related terms

“We observe an upward trend in hospital traffic and search volume beginning in late Summer and early Fall 2019,” the research said.

“While queries of the respiratory symptom “cough” show seasonal fluctuations coinciding with yearly influenza seasons, “diarrhoea” 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,” it claimed.


The study makes the hypothesis that the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 that has caused the Covid-19 outbreak could have emerged naturally and could have circulated across the country even before the pandemic began.

"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," as per the research.

"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," it said indicating that it could have originated as far back as August.

The claims have been dismissed by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

"I think it is ridiculous, incredibly ridiculous, to come up with this conclusion based on superficial observations such as traffic volume," she said at a daily press briefing on Tuesday as quoted by Reuters.

Published on June 09, 2020

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