The Chinese city long believed to be ground zero for the global coronavirus pandemic could have seen spread of the deadly virus much earlier than previously reported, according to new research.
The government province of Hubei, where the port city of Wuhan is located, saw a big jump in the purchase of equipment used to test for infectious diseases months before the Chinese government notified international health authorities of the emerging pathogen.
The study by Internet 2.0, a cyber security firm that specialises in examining data from China, says purchases for PCR lab equipment in the second half of 2019 almost doubled from the previous year.
While the company says the report – titled Procuring for a Pandemic – is not a smoking gun, it strongly suggests Chinese authorities were aware of a new disease in the community and were actively hunting for it as early as June, July and August.
"We have come to the conclusion that, based on the data analysed, it suggests the virus was highly likely to be spreading virulently in Wuhan, China, as early as the summer of 2019 and definitely by the autumn," the report said.
According to the "exhaustive assessment", spending in Hubei province on infectious disease equipment rose to the equivalent of $14.6 million in 2019, up from $7.5 million the previous year and $6.1 million in 2017.
Equipment purchased as early as May
The report's authors attributed the sudden jump in spending on lab equipment to four local institutions: the Chinese Centres for Disease Control (CDC) in Hubei province, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Wuhan University of Science and Technology and a military hospital in Wuhan.
"During the study we have also identified notable, significant and abnormal 2019 purchases of PCR equipment in Wuhan by the People's Liberation Army Airborne Army Hospital (May 2019)," the report says.
The authors believe the increasing spend in May suggests "the earliest start date for possible infection" but said it had "medium confidence" that significant increases in lab equipment started in July.
Co-CEO of the cyber security firm behind the report, Robert Porter, told Bloomberg in a TV interview that the rise in PCR contracts amounted to a "dramatic increase" and stands in stark contrast to assertions from the Chinese government that Covid-19 started spreading in Wuhan in December.
"China's procurement records are reasonably robust and reasonably open source," he said.
According to The Telegraph, which first reported on the analysis, the data has been handed to US government officials months after president Joe Biden directed his intelligence agencies to get to the bottom of the origins of Covid-19 as a controversial lab leak theory gained traction.
"We assess with high confidence that the pandemic began much earlier than China informed the WHO about Covid-19," the final line of the report affirms.
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