NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — On New Year’s Eve 2019, China announced that health authorities in Wuhan were treating dozens of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause. Three weeks later, the first deaths due to the mysterious disease were reported outside of China. Now, health authorities from around the world are saying that timeline may not be correct.
Previously, coronavirus was thought to have made the jump to humans in Wuhan, China likely from an animal at Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market in November or December 2019. But, new evidence suggests the virus may have been circulating before that.
Harvard researchers have used digital techniques to show that COVID-19 was present in Wuhan earlier than previously thought. The researchers looked for COVID related search terms in a Chinese search engine and found an upward trend beginning in late summer and early fall of 2019.
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The researchers also analyzed satellite imagery of hospital parking lots that, when compared to photos from a year earlier, showed a significant increase in traffic in the fall of 2019, before being nearly empty in February 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak. The parking lot of the seafood market showed a similar pattern, with plenty of traffic in the fall prior to being empty in February.
This evidence does not prove that COVID-19 had broken out earlier than it was announced, nor does it mean that China deliberately misled the world. It is a correlation that adds to the belief among researchers that this coronavirus had an earlier, slower start before exploding on the global level.