China dismisses claim that COVID-19 started spreading in Wuhan last August

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Beijing dismissed as “ridiculous” a Harvard Medical School study of hospital traffic and search engine data that suggested the new coronavirus may already have been spreading in China last August, and scientists said it offered no convincing evidence of when the outbreak began.

The research, which has not been peer-reviewed by other scientists, used satellite imagery of hospital parking lots in Wuhan — where the disease was first identified in late 2019 — and data for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 “diarrhea.”

The study’s authors said increased hospital traffic and symptom search data in Wuhan preceded the documented start of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in December 2019.

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“While we cannot confirm if the increased volume was directly related to the new virus, our evidence supports other recent work showing that emergence happened before identification at the Huanan Seafood market (in Wuhan),” they said.

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Paul Digard, an expert in virology at the University of Edinburgh, said that using search engine data and satellite imagery of hospital traffic to detect disease outbreaks “is an interesting idea with some validity.”

But he said the data was only correlative and — as the Harvard scientists noted — cannot identify cause.

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