In Brief

Coronavirus: satellite images suggest outbreak first hit Wuhan in October

Hospital attendance in the city ‘almost doubled’ months before China alerted WHO about Covid-19

Satellite imagery from Wuhan suggests the new coronavirus was spreading in the Chinese city weeks earlier than Beijing has admitted, according to a new US study.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School analysed commercial satellite images of five Wuhan hospitals and observed what they describe as “a dramatic increase in hospital traffic beginning late summer and early fall 2019”, reports The Times.

This spike in attendance coincided with an increase in Chinese internet searches for symptoms later linked to Covid-19.

“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,” study leader Dr John Brownstein, a professor of biomedical informatics, told ABC News.

Some Wuhan hospitals saw a 90% year-on-year increase, according to the research.

The Harvard team also looked at data from Chinese search engine Baidu and discovered “an uptick in searches of keywords associated with an infectious disease”, including “cough” and “diarrhoea”, by users in the Wuhan region, reports CNN.

“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,” say the study authors. 

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China alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) on 31 December that a new respiratory disease was spreading through the city.

The researchers’ suggestion that the outbreak could have emerged weeks earlier has been strongly denied by Beijing.

In a 66-page report defending its response to the outbreak, the Chinese government says that the UN health agency and other countries were notified in an “open and transparent manner”

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