Satellite data suggests coronavirus may have hit China earlier

Researchers say surge in cars at hospitals may indicate outbreak in fall.

Starting with nearly 350 images captured by private satellites circling the globe, Brownstein’s study first examined traffic and parking outside major hospitals in Wuhan for the past two years. Among them were photographs snapped from space approximately every week or every other week through the fall of 2019. From the approximately 350 frames, researchers found 108 usable images, showing locations without obstruction from smog, tall buildings, clouds or other features that could complicate satellite analysis.

The logic of Brownstein’s research project was straightforward: respiratory diseases lead to very specific types of behavior in communities where they’re spreading. So, pictures that show those patterns of behavior could help explain what was happening even if the people who were sickened did not realize the broader problem at the time.

“What we’re trying to do is look at the activity, how busy a hospital is,” Brownstein said. “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.”

The picture painted by the data is not in itself conclusive, Brownstein acknowledged, but he said the numbers are telling.

“This is all about a growing body of information pointing to something taking place in Wuhan at the time,” Brownstein said. “Many studies are still needed to fully uncover what took place and for people to really learn about how these disease outbreaks unfold and emerge in populations. So this is just another point of evidence.”

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