Satellite data suggests coronavirus may have hit China earlier: Researchers

Most of the world didn’t know about China’s mysterious new coronavirus outbreak until January, but people at its epicenter started to behave like there was a new respiratory virus long before that, new research shows.

As early as August 2019, residents of Wuhan, China, were flocking to the city’s major hospitals and searching the internet for information about coronavirus-like symptoms, according to a study published Monday in Harvard University’s online repository.

Examining 111 satellite images of the parking lots of six major hospitals in Wuhan, the researchers found a significant uptick in traffic starting September and October 2019.

At the same time, the Chinese search engine Baidu saw a spike in searches for “cough” and “diarrhea” in the Wuhan region. Though coughs are typical of many viruses that circulate in the fall, the diarrhea that afflicts some COVID-19 patients is unique among respiratory illnesses.

“Something was happening in October,” Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School who led the research, told ABC News. “Clearly, there was some level of social disruption taking place well before what was previously identified as the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic.”

The researchers have submitted the study to the journal Nature Digital Medicine, where it is currently under peer review, according to ABC.