An Australia-based firm wants the Five Eyes to look into its suspicions that a surge in the procurement of PCR testing equipment in Wuhan, China means the Covid-19 pandemic started earlier than officially reported.
The claim was made by an analytics company called Internet 2.0, which counts the Australian government among its clients, based on open-source data detailing Chinese government contracts. In 2019, there was an unusual surge in purchases of lab equipment for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing in the Hubei province, the report said.
The province and its capital, Wuhan were the first to experience an outbreak of the disease now known as Covid-19. A type of PCR test has become one of the primary tools for detecting genes of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in patients.
Internet 2.0 says the lab equipment buying spree led them to conclude with “high confidence that the pandemic began much earlier than China informed the WHO about Covid-19.” It shared the report with Five Eyes, an alliance of intelligence services of five English-speaking nations, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and US.
There is a general increase in digital procurement evident in the data but the spike in late 2019 in particular is out of trend. We can’t reach a definitive conclusion as to when but the data does create a wide range area for us to assess.
Former US President Donald Trump accused China of covering up the outbreak of Covid-19, and the theory that the virus accidentally leaked from a lab in Wuhan was pushed by some senior US officials. Beijing said the accusations were made to draw the public’s attention away from the Trump administration’s alleged disastrous response to the pandemic, and to fuel international resentment against China as part of a great-power competition. Australia was among the most vocal supporters of the US allegations, which resulted in Chinese-Australian relations quickly degenerating into open diplomatic hostility.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry unsurprisingly reacted dismissively to the latest attempt to accuse China of covering up the outbreak in Wuhan. A spokesman told Bloomberg that the research is as dubious as that of previous papers, like an analysis of traffic volume near hospitals in the provincial capital and online search queries for ‘cough’ and ‘diarrhea’ in the months prior to the start of the pandemic.
There have been many papers questioning the official timeline of the spread of Covid-19 across the globe, including some by Chinese scientists. A September publication said that SARS-CoV-2 may have been present on US soil as early as September 2019, months before the first reported case in the country.
While PCR testing has become widely known to the public because of the pandemic, the method was developed in the 1980s and has many applications where a small sample of genes needs to be amplified for further analysis. In addition to detecting pathogens, it is used for genetic fingerprinting in forensic science, studying ancient DNA samples in archeology, and medical research such as gene mapping.
Internet 2.0’s own analysis shows that purchases of PCR testing equipment have been steadily rising in China, and particularly in the Hubei province, over the years. It highlighted three particular contracts as going “out of trend” in Hubei – made in May, September, and November 2019. They supposedly indicate that China was dealing with the novel coronavirus months before the outbreak in Wuhan was officially detected in December 2019.
Skeptics have come up with alternative explanations. The surge in the acquisition of PCR testing equipment “correlates with the 2017 start of China’s Global Virome Project,” a US government source told The Australian. They were referring to the US-initiated international project to identify and study diseases threatening to jump from animal to humans, of which China became a strong supporter.
“The increase in orders correlates with the time period in which the US CDC and NIH were helping China expand its infectious disease/influenza surveillance capacity,” the source said. “The increase in orders also occurs during the time when EcoHealth Alliance and PREDICT was increasing China’s laboratory capacity.”
EcoHealth Alliance is a US-based NGO, which funds research of emerging infections, including by grants from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). PREDICT is one of its programs. The Wuhan Institute of Virology, the organization in the focus of the lab leak theory, was a recipient of such grants, which came into question amid the controversy surrounding the origins of Covid-19.
Critics accused Anthony Fauci of using his position in the administrations of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden to downplay the connection between the NIH and the Wuhan lab. Fauci heads one of the institutes comprising the NIH, in addition to serving as the chief medical adviser to the president.
The Trump administration’s claims about a lab leak were treated as a conspiracy theory by hostile US media, but their attitude changed after Biden took office. Its newfound open-mindedness, however, has not gone as far as treating Fauci as a possible bad actor in the virus origins debate.
Retired Australian Army intelligence officer David Robinson and cybersecurity expert Robert Potter, the co-CEOs of Internet 2.0, were careful to stress that their firm’s report doesn’t constitute a smoking gun in the search for the origin of Covid-19, but said that “in the future some part of this data might support an origins finding.”
Our Core Findings Quoted in Bloomberg: This data does not support any origins conclusions on Covid-19 but in the future some part of this data might support an origins finding, Nor does this report identify a specific point in time where a pandemic emerged.
They blamed China’s purported resistance to international investigations of where the virus came from for the fact that researchers have to “unfortunately… rely on third-party data points” in their work. Beijing insists that it has provided sufficient transparency about its response to the Covid-19 outbreak and says accusations to the contrary are political in nature.
The version that the virus jumped from bats to humans through an intermediary animal is generally considered the most plausible by the scientific community.
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