Labs in China’s Wuhan city dramatically increased the procurement of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) equipment in the second half of 2019, indicating that Covid-19 was “spreading virulently” months before the government reported the first case to the WHO in December 2019, according to a new report.
Data compiled by Internet 2.0, an Australian cyber security company, found that the Chinese government spent nearly twice the amount on PCR tests — used to detect certain viruses — in 2019, compared to the previous year. While China procured the PCR equipment for 36.7m yuan (£4.1mn) in 2018, it spent 67.7m yuan (£7.6m) in 2019.
The report also found that the total PCR procurement contracts rose from 89 in 2018 to 135 in 2019.
The “notable, significant and abnormal” increase in purchases was mainly from four institutions — the People’s Liberation Army Airborne Army Hospital, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Wuhan University of Science and Technology, and the Hubei Province Districts Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Robert Potter, chief executive and founder of Internet 2.0, told the Australian that some of the procurement data may be benign. “But taken together it gives us a trend that comprehensively challenged the official narrative that the pandemic started in December,” Mr Potter, also one of the authors of this study, said.
“It also shows there’s a significant amount of procurement from the government level, the PLA and the Centre for Disease Control, as well as sensitive laboratories that are in the Hubei province,” he added.
China reported the first cluster of cases on 31 December 2019, while the WHO published its first advisory on the cases on 5 January 2020. According to Internet 2.0’s study, the increased spending was seen as early as May 2019.
The study was, however, disputed by China’s Foreign Ministry.
“Virus traceability is a serious scientific issue that should be addressed by scientists,” a spokesperson told Bloomberg before dismissing it as yet another dubious claim about the origin of the coronavirus pandemic.
Other medical experts also approached the conclusion drawn from the research with caution.
Dr Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security said that he did not know the specific reason behind the increase in purchases in Hubei province at that time. But he added that the increase in purchases of PCR equipment in general is not surprising as it had become “the methodology of choice for pathogen detection”, even before the pandemic.