New research suggests that the effects of Covid-19 may be much longer lasting that at first thought. Credit: Handout.

Dramatic spikes in auto traffic around major hospitals in Wuhan last fall suggest the novel coronavirus may have been present and spreading through central China long before the outbreak was first reported to the world, ABC News reported.

Using techniques similar to those employed by the CIA, the research team at Harvard Medical School 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 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.”

Though Brownstein acknowledged the evidence is circumstantial, he said the study makes for an important new data point in the mystery of Covid-19’s origins, ABC News reported.

“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.”

Since the outbreak in China last year, the coronavirus has swept across the globe infecting nearly 7 million and killing more than 400,000 worldwide, ABC News reported.

It is generally believed that the virus jumped from animal species to humans, where it has become the most potent natural killer since the Spanish flu pandemic.

Though Chinese officials would not formally notify the World Health Organization until Dec. 31 that a new respiratory pathogen was coursing through Wuhan, US intelligence caught wind of a problem as early as late November and notified the Pentagon, ABC News reported.

The logic of Brownstein’s research 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.

“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.”

Disease ecologist Peter Daszak, president of the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance in Manhattan, said the Harvard study “is absolutely fascinating.”

“You need to look at every possible bit of evidence, where it came from and when it emerged,” said Daszak. “When we do analysis after outbreaks, we find that the diseases had been in circulation days, weeks, months, years before. I really believe that’s what we’re going to find with Covid-19.”

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.

“It has to be right at noon,” Brownstein said, “because you basically want direct sunlight. You don’t want shadows to prevent our ability to count the cars.”

On Oct. 10, 2018, there were 171 cars in the parking lot of Wuhan’s Tianyou Hospital, one of the city’s largest. A year later, satellites recorded 285 cars — a 67% increase, according to the data reviewed by the researchers and shared with ABC News.

Wuhan satellite analysis. Credit: Harvard Medical School.

Other hospitals showed up to a 90% increase when comparing traffic between fall of 2018 and 2019, according to the study. At Wuhan Tongji Medical University, the spike in car traffic was found to have occurred in mid-September 2019.

Former acting Homeland Security Undersecretary John Cohen, who oversaw DHS intelligence operations during the Obama administration, said the new research suggests that Covid-19, which has already killed more than 110,000 Americans, was likely brought to the US by travelers from Wuhan long before it was detected.

“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,” said Cohen, now an ABC News contributor.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she hadn’t seen the research, “but I think it’s outrageously absurd if anyone comes to such conclusion only based on superficial elements like the traffic patterns,” calling the research methods “hardly watertight.”

“There have been so many conspiracy theories against China, which is so unfair,” she said. “The most pressing task for the international community at this moment is to do everything to control the spread of the pandemic and save more lives.”

The study has been submitted to the journal Nature Digital Medicine and is under peer review.