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New Study Suggests COVID-19 Outbreak Began in Wuhan Earlier Than Reported


A medical worker takes a swab sample from a resident to be tested for the COVID-19 in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province. Nervous residents queued up across the city for testing after a new cluster of cases sparked a mass screening campaign.

A study by U.S. researchers suggests the novel coronavirus that was first detected in central China may have begun spreading well before the outbreak was first revealed to the world.

According to scientists at Harvard Medical Center, Boston University of Public Health and Boston Children’s Hospital, satellite images of hospital parking lots in the city of Wuhan showed "a steep increase” in traffic starting in August of last year and peaking in December, when Beijing first alerted the World Health Organization about the new disease that has since been dubbed COVID-19.

The imagery reveals that one of the hospitals surveyed, Tianyou Hospital, had 285 vehicles in its parking lots in October 2019, compared to 171 cars the year before, an increase of 67 percent.

The study also said the rise in hospital traffic during that time coincided with numerous online word searches for “cough” and “diarrhea” on the Chinese search engine Baidu.

The novel coronavirus is believed to have originated at a market in Wuhan in late December 2019. The researchers say that while it could not confirm if the increased hospital traffic was directly related to COVID-19, “our evidence supports other recent work showing that emergence happened before identification at the Huanan Seafood market."

A summary of the study, which is still under peer review, was posted Monday on Harvard’s “Dash” online repository for medical research.

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