Satellite images of busy car parks at hospitals in Wuhan reveal the coronavirus outbreak actually hit months before the Chinese government acknowledged it, researchers claim.
According to the Harvard Medical School research, the volume of hospital traffic in the months before the coronavirus outbreak officially began was much larger than would have been expected based on the previous year.
The study, which has not been peer reviewed, claims this could indicate COVID-19 had begun to spread through the population in Wuhan earlier than the Chinese government officially claims.
Image: The research paper has not been peer-reviewed
The team's work is based on commercial satellite data which they say correlates with an increase in queries on the Chinese search engine Baidu for some symptoms of coronavirus infection.
However, it is not clear whether the satellite images used in the study were all collected on the same weekdays or even the same times of day, which would affect whether they were directly comparable.
Questions have also been raised about the computer vision technology used to automatically count the number of cars in those images.
A spokeswoman for China's foreign ministry dismissed the value of the study, telling journalists: "It is incredibly ridiculous to come up with this conclusion based on superficial observations such as traffic volume."
The study is, however, another challenge to the official narrative regarding the outbreak and how the Chinese government handled it during its early days.
Beijing first reported a series of mysterious pneumonia cases to the World Health Organisation on 31 December, and just over a week later confirmed that a new strain of coronavirus was the cause.
However, even on 14 January, the WHO was citing "preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities" which found "no clear evidence of human-to-human" transmission of the virus.US terminates relationship with WHO
US President Donald Trump has subsequently terminated America's relationship with the WHO, claiming China had "total control" over the organisation and "ignored" its reporting obligations regarding the outbreak.
China's ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, has said the country would welcome an "international review" into the origins of the pandemic, as long as it was led by the WHO.
"This review should be independent, free from politicisation, it should be based on science, the scientists should take the lead," he told Sky News.