Last summer in Wuhan

There’s new evidence that an outbreak of an infectious disease closely and suspiciously resembling Covid-19 occurred in Wuhan months before the officially recognized beginning of the coronavirus epidemic.

Satellite images of hospital parking lots in Wuhan as well as internet search trends, show the coronavirus may have been spreading in China as early as last August, according to a new study from Harvard Medical School.

When hospital parking lots are packed to overflowing and “diarrhea and cough” takes the lead in Google Baidu searches originating from the area, it’s a sure sign of a flu-like infection spreading around the place. And apparently it’s not the only piece of evidence that has emerged:

“…our evidence supports other recent work showing that emergence happened before identification at the Huanan Seafood market…”

I have little doubt that at the turn of the year 2020, the Chinese authorities were miles ahead of the rest of the world in terms of information and knowledge related to the new virus and its consequences. The drastic measures that followed reflected that knowledge: simply put, Beijing got scared and chose the lesser evil of a brutal lockdown in Hubei.

I assumed that the key information on the destructive potential of the coronavirus came from the biological (warfare) lab in Wuhan so it didn’t take long for the authorities to figure out the downside risks. Now it looks the true story could be more complicated, although its pivotal fact – the Chinese time advantage – remains in place, unchanged. It’s also possible that the virus had escaped the lab earlier than was commonly thought; or it was a different species, possibly related but not the same.

Much as a dislike linking to a tabloid, there are some useful bits in the DM’s reporting, including this:

The study found: ‘While queries of the respiratory symptom ‘cough’ show seasonal fluctuations coinciding with yearly influenza seasons, ‘diarrhoea’ is a more COVID-19-specific symptom and only shows an association with the current epidemic. 

‘The increase of both signals precede the documented start of the COVID-19 pandemic in December.’ 

Ideally, we shouldn’t be wary of conclusions based on fragmentary inputs. Perhaps it was some other virus or even a bacteria; perhaps people in Wuhan get routinely infected by mutant viruses from the city’s bats or labs.

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