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Research Shows Virus Might Have Started in August, China Denies

Market workers wearing protective gear spray disinfectant at a market in the southeastern city of Daegu on February 23, 2020 as a preventive measure after the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.
Research Shows Virus Might Have Started in August, China Denies
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China’s government has dismissed findings from a Harvard Medical School study about the new coronavirus. The study suggests the virus may have begun spreading as early as last August in Wuhan, China.

A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry called the study “ridiculous,” at a news briefing Tuesday.

The study used satellite imagery of hospital parking lots in Wuhan and data from internet search engines on physical conditions like “cough” and “diarrhea.”

The study’s writers said the increased hospital traffic and internet search data in Wuhan came before the documented start of the coronavirus outbreak in December 2019.

The Harvard researchers said they cannot confirm if the increased hospital visits were directly related to the new virus. But, they said, their evidence supports other recent work showing the disease appeared before its discovery at the Hunan Seafood Market in Wuhan.

Several independent scientists also criticized the study, saying it did not provide clear evidence of when the outbreak began.

Paul Digard is an expert in virus study at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He calls the use of search engine data and satellite images of hospital traffic “an interesting idea” with some usefulness.

But he said the data only shows a possible link between things; it does not prove one thing was the result of the other. In their study, the Harvard scientists noted this as well.

Keith Neal is a researcher of infectious disease data at Britain’s Nottingham University. He told Reuters news agency the Harvard study is, in his words, “an interesting piece of work, but I’m not sure it takes us much further forward.”

The Harvard research showed a sharp jump in occupancy at hospital parking lots in August 2019.

In an internet “pre-print” of the study report, the researchers wrote that they found an increase in internet searches for “diarrhea.” That was something not seen in earlier influenza seasons nor in earlier cough search data.

Neal, from Nottingham University, said the study included traffic around at least one children’s hospital. He said though children do get sick with influenza, they do not usually get sick with COVID-19.

Digard, from the University of Edinburgh, warned that by looking only at hospitals in Wuhan, the study “forces” the link between increased traffic and the virus outbreak.

He said it would have been interesting and possibly much more persuasive if it had also shown data from cities outside the Hubei area of China.

I’m Caty Weaver.

Reuters news agency reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

ridiculous - adj. extremely silly or unreasonable

parking lot - n. an area outside a building for parking cars and other vehicles

outbreak - n. A sudden start or increase of infectious disease

data - n. facts or information used usually to calculate, study, or plan something

interesting - adj. attracting your attention and making you want to learn more about something

pre-print - n. a version of a scholarly or scientific paper that comes before formal peer review and publication in a scholarly or scientific journal