Here's When Harvard Researchers Say Coronavirus Really Started

New evidence shows the actual start date of the COVID-19 outbreak may be much earlier than originally thought.

After months of stay at home orders, shuttered businesses, and a general pause on life as we know it, the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic already feels as if it were months and months ago. But according to a recent discovery, that feeling may not be all that far off from the truth. Researchers from Harvard Medical School have found evidence to suggest that the COVID-19 outbreak may have started much earlier than initially reported. In fact, the findings push the actual origin date of coronavirus all the way back from late November to the end of summer 2019.

Through the use of satellite images, the Harvard research team "observed a dramatic increase in hospital traffic outside five major Wuhan hospitals beginning late summer and early fall 2019," John Brownstein, PhD, who led the research, told ABC News. The traffic increase also "coincided with" a spike in Chinese search engine queries for "certain symptoms that would later be determined as closely associated with the novel coronavirus," like a cough and diarrhea.

ambulance on the road

Scientists have struggled to pinpoint the exact date and location of the novel coronavirus' origins. Determining the pandemic's source has long been a goal of the global community, as it could greatly help the researchers who are working around the clock to better understand the disease and develop ways to treat the virus.

To make up for the lack of hard data, the Harvard research team used methods that intelligence agencies depend on around the world. "What we're trying to do is look at the activity, how busy a hospital is," Brownstein told ABC News. "And the way we do that is by counting the cars that are at that hospital. Parking lots will get full as a hospital gets busy. So more cars in a hospital, the hospital's busier, likely because something's happening in the community, an infection is growing and people have to see a doctor. So you see the increases in the hospital business through the cars… We saw this across multiple institutions."

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While the data is still considered circumstantial, many are looking at this discovery as one of the first breakthroughs on providing an accurate start date for coronavirus.

"This study raises serious questions about whether the coronavirus was first introduced into the United States earlier than previously reported and whether measures announced in late January restricting travel from China were too little too late," John Cohen, former acting Homeland Security Undersecretary, told ABC News.

But researchers are quick to point out that there's more work to be done. "Now, we can't confirm 100 percent what the virus was that was causing this illness and what was causing this business in hospitals," Brownstein told ABC. "But something was going on that looked very different than any other time that we had looked at." And for more information on where the pandemic is surging, check out 7 States Where Coronavirus Numbers Are Surging Right Now.

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Zachary Mack
Zachary covers beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He's the owner of Alphabet City Beer Co. in New York City and is a Certified Cicerone. Read more
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