Wednesday, December 2

Harvard: A study based on Internet inquiries and Wuhan traffic concludes that the virus began to circulate last August | Science


A woman, wearing a mask, crosses an overpass in Wuhan on May 14.
A woman, wearing a mask, crosses an overpass in Wuhan on May 14.HÉCTOR RETAMAL

Knowing the origin of the pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is a priority of the World Health Organization (WHO), according to its spokesman, Christopher Lindmeier. Researchers already know that the virus was in circulation before the first confirmed cases during the month of January of this year in Wuhan and they calculate that, between October and November 2019, the pathogen was already adapted to humans. An investigation by Harvard Medical School now analyzes the movements in the parking lots in the hospitals of the Chinese city and the consultations of symptoms compatible with covid-19 on the Internet to conclude that the disease could have shown signs since August.

The research, reflected in a prepress published in a Harvard repository, have used data streams previously validated and obtained through satellite images of hospital parking lots and consultations in Baidu (the main Internet search engine in China) of terms related to symptoms compatible with the disease.

Analysts from the US university have observed an increase in traffic (between 110 and 150 more vehicles parked per day) in five hospital areas of Wuhan as well as an increase in Internet consultations with the terms “cough”, “respiratory symptoms” and “diarrhea.”

Researchers calculate that the virus, due to the influx of people to medical centers and consultations through the network, was already in circulation at the end of summer

The same research acknowledges that the increase in these searches, except for those related to symptoms of intestinal discomfort, also occurs in the annual flu seasons. However, the crossing of data leads the researchers to calculate that the virus, as a result of the influx of people to medical centers and consultations through the network, was already in circulation at the end of summer. “The increase in both signals precedes the documented start of the covid-19 pandemic in December,” they say.

The WHO already sent a mission in February to investigate the origin of the pandemic and wants to resume the investigations with a new mission to Wuhan. “This is vitally important for public health, because without knowing what the animal origin is, it is difficult for us to try to prevent this from happening again in the future,” explained the WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove.

The Harvard researchers point out that the study shows the value of digital information sources for surveillance of emerging pathogens.

In the same line works the researcher of the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) José Javier Ramasco, who has highlighted, in a conference on mobility and covid-19 held last month, the importance of observing urban mobility in real time and using different data sources.

Too the Spanish Ministry of Transport studies the “characterization of mobility at the national, autonomous community, provincial and local level” with the aim of “supporting the work of monitoring the evolution of the disease”. Similarly, the National Statistics Institute (INE) has prepared a first DataCOVID study about mobility.

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