Data and images gathered by Harvard University research indicate that several hospitals in Wuhan Province, China, which was the early epicenter of the coronavirus, began seeing an increase in traffic as early as last August.
The Harvard researchers stressed that the data cannot be conclusively linked to the spread of coronavirus. But the study’s authors said that the research supports its hypothesis that the virus originated before being identified last December.
The researchers used satellite images from hospitals in addition to search engine data to back its study. The images showed an increase in hospital traffic while search engines showed an uptick in inquiries of coronavirus-related symptoms.
The research noted that there are seasonal changes in online searches for “cough,” there was also a subsequent jump in searches for “diarrhea,” which the researchers said is a more coronavirus-specific search term. The authors said both search query terms show a large increase approximately 3 weeks preceding the large spike of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“Our retrospective analysis cannot verify if increased hospital and search engine volume is related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” the authors wrote. SARS-CoV-2 is the strain of the novel coronavirus. "While alternative explanations such as the 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan may explain some increases in parking lot traffic, this event opened on October 18, 2019, weeks after the initial rise in Baidu search engine traffic.
“Still, further research is needed to validate the emergence of SARS-CoV-2. This study adds to a growing body of work on the value of digital sources as an early indicator of a disease outbreak in the context of limited integrated electronic surveillance data.”
To read the full study, click here.