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What Spurred the Increase in Visits to Wuhan Hospitals in October 2019?

A healthcare worker gestures as residents line up for nucleic acid testings in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, May 16, 2020. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Late last month, the Morning Jolt noted an odd story from a couple in San Francisco who took a cruise in China in November 2019. Their cruise started in Wuhan on November 1, but cruise organizers rushed them through a nearly empty museum and then made them leave the city early, giving the travelers implausible explanations about river traffic. The couple said it could well be coincidental, but it’s easy to wonder whether certain people in Wuhan, perhaps including people connected to that tour visit, knew something was wrong or unsafe in the city at that time.

This morning, ABC News offers more anecdotal evidence suggesting that residents of Wuhan knew some sort of serious health problem was brewing around that time:

Using techniques similar to those employed by intelligence agencies, the research team behind the study analyzed commercial satellite imagery and “observed a dramatic increase in hospital traffic outside five major Wuhan hospitals beginning late summer and early fall 2019,” according to Dr. John Brownstein, the Harvard Medical professor who led the research.

Brownstein, an ABC News contributor, said the traffic increase also “coincided with” elevated queries on a Chinese internet search for “certain symptoms that would later be determined as closely associated with the novel coronavirus.”

“Something was happening in October,” said Brownstein, the chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and director of the medical center’s Computational Epidemiology Lab. “Clearly, there was some level of social disruption taking place well before what was previously identified as the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic.”

The ABC report includes some of the satellite images and car counts, and comparisons to a year earlier. The researchers also found a sudden spike in Wuhan residents making Internet searches about symptoms of a coronavirus infection.

It is impossible to determine if the people who drove those cars in hospital parking lots had SARS-CoV-2 or were bringing relatives infected with that virus to the hospital. October is the start of the “normal” flu season, and it’s possible that residents of Wuhan were catching and fighting off other non SARS-CoV-2 viruses at this time. But the size of the spike in traffic at these hospitals is certainly on a scale large enough to raise eyebrows; the number of cars around Wuhan Tongji Medical University nearly doubled from October 10, 2018 . . . to September 12, 2019.

Back in April, NBC News cited two current and one former U.S. official declaring that U.S. spy agencies collected raw intelligence hinting at a public-health crisis in Wuhan, China, in November. The intelligence was described as “communications intercepts and overhead images showing increased activity at health facilities.”

But the Pentagon denied the report, with some particularly precise language. “We can confirm that media reporting about the existence/release of a National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) Coronavirus-related product/assessment in November of 2019 is incorrect,” said a statement by Dr. R. Shane Day, an Air Force colonel who is director of the National Center for Medical Intelligence, a unit of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. “No such NCMI product exists.”

If SARS-CoV-2 spurred significant numbers of Wuhan residents to visit four hospitals as early as October 17 . . . does this fit with the private analysis of cellphone location data that suggested “there was no cellphone activity in a high-security portion of the Wuhan Institute of Virology from Oct. 7 through Oct. 24, 2019”? Or does the sudden increase in traffic around the Wuhan Tongji Medical University in September suggest that the drop in cell-phone use in the Wuhan Institute of Virology was unrelated to the coronavirus outbreak?

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