Satellite data suggest coronavirus was spreading in Wuhan months earlier than believed

China first told the World Health Organization it was treating multiple cases of a mysterious pneumonia on December 31, 2019. At the time it was warning doctors in local hospitals not to spread “rumors” about the disease. In March, the South China Morning Post reported that the first known case of the disease may have been contracted in Wuhan around mid-November, pushing the timeline back a few more weeks. However, using satellite photos, Dr. John Brownstein and a team of researchers says it appears the virus may have been spreading widely in Wuhan in October and even earlier:

Using techniques similar to those employed by intelligence agencies, the research team behind the study analyzed commercial satellite imagery and “observed a dramatic increase in hospital traffic outside five major Wuhan hospitals beginning late summer and early fall 2019,” according to Dr. John Brownstein, the Harvard Medical professor who led the research.

Brownstein, an ABC News contributor, said the traffic increase also “coincided with” elevated queries on a Chinese internet search for “certain symptoms that would later be determined as closely associated with the novel coronavirus.”…

“Something was happening in October,” said Brownstein, the chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and director of the medical center’s Computational Epidemiology Lab. “Clearly, there was some level of social disruption taking place well before what was previously identified as the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic.”…

“At all the larger hospitals in Wuhan, we measured the highest traffic we’ve seen in over two years during the September through December 2019 time frame,” Diamond said. “Our company is used to measuring tiny changes, like 2% to 3% growth in a Cabella’s or Wal-Mart parking lot. That was not the case here. Here, there is a very clear trend.”

ABC published this graph showing a spike in hospital traffic well before November:

The timeline along the bottom of that graph is a bit hard to parse but that dotted line seems to mark the point at which there was an uptick. That would have been sometime around early August and then that peaks around December and begins to fall off. Obviously people who are infected don’t become sick immediately. It takes a number of days for symptoms to crop up. So if people were heading to the hospital as early as August, the first infections may have been taking place in late July.

The graph of Wuhan internet searches for words that might be associated with an outbreak of coronavirus seem to have an uptick at almost exactly the same time:

ABC reports that this data showing something changed in Wuhan last fall is “a key factor in classified early U.S. intelligence reporting.” Back in April there were reports that U.S. intelligence agencies believe China was hiding the true scope of the outbreak.

The earlier timeline would help explain how it was possible that there were cases of the virus in the U.S. in 2019. Last month the Seattle Times reported that antibody testing had identified two people who’d had the disease in late December and early January. One of the two cases, a woman identified as Jean, came down with the disease just after Christmas last year. But Jean had not traveled to China or anywhere else before she became ill. So she must have gotten the virus from someone else who had traveled in China even earlier and then returned to the U.S. and spread it to her.

The big caveat here is that the evidence is circumstantial. Of course China has the records for all the people who visited those Wuhan hospitals in October. It probably still has samples from people who visited with corona-like symptoms. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem very likely that we’ll get any cooperation from China in investigating this. They have a politically-driven narrative about China’s outstanding response to the virus which overlooks the weeks in January they spent downplaying this. Pushing back the spread of the virus by 2-4 months would only make the CCP response look worse and they won’t allow that to happen.

Finally, there’s a potential problem with the idea that the virus was spreading in Wuhan as far back as July or August of 2019. How is it possible there were no deaths recorded until months later in January? The simple answer is that it’s not possible. If the virus was spreading and people were going to the hospital, there must have been deaths. But perhaps those were classified as pneumonia at the time. We’ve already seen the ways in which authoritarian regimes hide coronavirus deaths in order to keep them out of the official numbers. And remember that leaked document on the outbreak which had 640,000 updates. We already know China is willing to cover up the numbers, so why not the timeline as well.

Here’s the video report that appeared on Good Morning America this morning.