China’s official story about the origins of the coronavirus just took another hit with the release of a research report from the U.S., the U.K. and Australia that suggests China was aware of a virus outbreak around Wuhan at least seven months before the first reported case in December 2019.
Orders of China PCR tests began spiking in May 2019 in Hubei Province, home to Wuhan and the epicenter of the outbreak. About $10.5 million was spent there on PCR tests in 2019, nearly twice as much as 2018. The report, released by a research team that includes former intelligence officers, is based on records from a website aggregating information on bids for public sector procurement contracts, Masaya Kato reported for Nikkei Asia.
PCR tests — short for polymerase chain reaction — are used to detect a particular genetic sequence in a sample, and they have applications beyond covid-19 tests. The unusual surge in orders likely signals awareness of a new disease spreading in and around Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province, the report alleges.
Orders of China PCR tests in Hubei increased tenfold in 2019 from animal testing bureaus, fivefold from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and doubled from universities, Nikkei Asia reported. Purchases from hospitals fell by more than 10 percent.
The World Health Organization reported that its China Country Office was told on Dec. 31, 2019, about cases of pneumonia from an unknown cause detected in Wuhan, Bloomberg reported. China told the WHO that the first symptomatic case was recorded Dec. 8, 2019. China announced on Jan. 7, 2020, that it had identified a new type of coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, now known as covid-19. Since then, 4.82 million coronavirus deaths and 236.013 million cases have been reported globally.
Akira Igata, a visiting professor at Tama Graduate School of Business in Tokyo who examined the data independently, said “it’s strong information for making the case that there was awareness of a virus outbreak around Wuhan several months to half a year before that December.”
The report was published by the Australian-U.S. cybersecurity firm Internet 2.0, which specializes in digital forensics and intelligence analysis. Based on the research, it concluded with “high confidence that the pandemic began much earlier than China informed the WHO about Covid-19,” according to the report.
However, several medical experts say not so fast, there isn’t enough information to draw conclusions. China was battling an outbreak of African swine fever in 2019. PCR testing is getting more popular as a standard way of testing for pathogens. It’s used in labs to test for many other pathogens beside covid-19 in animals and humans and is commonly found in hospitals.
The Wuhan University of Science and Technology, which plays a direct role in responding to new disease outbreaks, spent eight times more on China PCR tests in 2019 than the previous year, according to the report.
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“The increase of purchasing was most likely linked to the emergence of COVID-19 in Hubei Province in 2019,” the report said. “We assess with high confidence that the pandemic began much earlier than China informed the [World Health Organization] about COVID-19.”
U.S. authorities have alleged that the virus leaked from a Wuhan research laboratory.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, an expert at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security on emerging diseases, said the data wasn’t specific enough to move the needle on covid’s origins. “I don’t think it adds anything plus or minus,” he said. “It’s not enough.” Increases in PCR test purchases in Hubei weren’t so surprising because they were spiking across the board. Even before covid, it was “the methodology of choice for pathogen detection,” he said, according to Bloomberg.
David Robinson, one of the authors of the report, acknowledged that China’s lack of transparency has contributed to conspiracy theories and misinformation.
“There has been no sharing of usable data from China regarding how and when COVID-19 started,” Robinson said. “Zero transparency has fueled a lot of hypothesis, theory, misinformation as well as heartache for the victims.”