PCR equipment purchases spiked in Hubei months before first known Covid-19 cases

Polymerase chain reaction testing has been in broad use for several decades. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The Chinese province that was the initial epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak made significant purchases of equipment used to test for infectious diseases months before Beijing notified international authorities of the emergence of a new coronavirus, according to research by a cyber-security company.

The province's purchase of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing equipment, which allows scientists to amplify DNA samples to test for infectious disease or other genetic material, shot upwards in 2019, with most of the increase coming in the second half of the year, Australian-US firm Internet 2.0 found.

Hubei province is home to Wuhan, the large Chinese city where the first known cases of the virus emerged. The World Health Organisation reported that its China Country Office was informed on Dec 31, 2019, that cases of pneumonia from an unknown cause had been detected in the city.

On Jan 7, 2020, the Chinese authorities identified a new type of coronavirus - one that would become known as Sars-CoV-2 and cause the illness now called Covid-19.

Since then, it has spread to virtually every corner of the world, and more than 230 million people have been infected and nearly 4.8 million have died.

Based on the research, Internet 2.0 concluded with "high confidence that the pandemic began much earlier than China informed the WHO about Covid-19", according to the report.

The cyber-security firm, which specialises in digital forensics and intelligence analysis, called for further investigation.

But several medical experts said the Internet 2.0 report was not enough information to draw such conclusions. For one thing, PCR testing, which has been in broad use for several decades, has been growing in popularity as it has become a standard method to test for pathogens, according to one of the experts.

In addition, PCR equipment is widely used in laboratories to test for many other pathogens besides Sars-CoV-2, including in animals, and is commonly found in modern hospitals and labs. China was also dealing with an outbreak of African swine fever across the country in 2019.

China's Foreign Ministry disputed the findings. In a response to Bloomberg News, a spokesman said the findings fall into the same category as other dubious claims about the origins of the coronavirus, including a "so-called paper" that analysed traffic volumes near several hospitals in Wuhan and searched for the keywords "cough" and "diarrhoea" before concluding that the outbreak began in Wuhan as early as August 2019.

"Virus traceability is a serious scientific issue that should be addressed by scientists," the spokesman said.

China's State Council Information Office published a White Paper on the country's actions to combat Covid-19 that, with "a clear timeline and iron-clad facts", chronicles its efforts to fight the epidemic, the spokesman said.

"China's anti-epidemic campaign is open to the world. The situation is clear, the facts are clear at a glance, and stand the test of time and history," the spokesman added.

Dr Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security, said he did not know why purchases in Hubei province specifically had increased at the time. But he said it was not so surprising because in general, purchases of PCR equipment have been growing, even pre-Covid-19, as it has become "the methodology of choice for pathogen detection".

Dr Adalja, whose work focuses on emerging infectious disease and pandemic preparedness, said the data was not specific enough to sway the conversation on Covid-19's origins.

"I don't think it adds anything plus or minus," he said. "It's not enough."

An Australian biochemist, who has read the report and has requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak publicly on the matter, said more data was needed to explain the procurement numbers.

The biochemist, who has a strong background in PCR and research application and immunology, said the data spoke to a sudden, significant need for pathogen diagnostic equipment, but he said it only raised questions about what the equipment was being used to test.

Mr David Robinson, Internet 2.0's co-chief executive officer and the lead researcher on the paper, said in an interview that the timing of some of the contracts and the agencies behind the purchases lend credence to the idea that officials in Hubei province were investigating a new human disease throughout the latter half of 2019.

However, he said his firm's findings were not a smoking gun.

"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," according to a statement by Mr Robinson and Mr Robert Potter, the other co-CEO. "Nor does this report identify a specific point in time where a pandemic emerged. The fact that China has gone to great lengths to ensure conclusive evidence is unobtainable means, unfortunately, we may have to rely on third-party data points."

The origins of the coronavirus have become a hotly contested issue, with the United States and its allies accusing Beijing of resisting a more thorough investigation, including into allegations that the virus escaped from a Wuhan biosecurity lab where similar coronaviruses have been studied.

In August, US intelligence officials released a summary of an investigation into the causes of the outbreak but said they were not able to reach firm conclusions because China refused to cooperate.

Chinese officials denied that they had hindered the probe and have vehemently rebutted the Wuhan lab leak theory. Top Chinese science officials have said the pathogen most likely arose in an animal, which transmitted it to humans via an intermediate host - a theory given most credence by the wider scientific community as well.

In an April article in journal Science, researchers concluded that mid-October to mid-November 2019 was the most plausible period in which the first case of a person contracting Covid-19 emerged in Hubei province.

Internet 2.0, which counts the Australian government among its clients, shared its data with government officials from the so-called "Five Eyes" countries, the group of intelligence-sharing nations comprised of Australia, the US, Canada, Britain and New Zealand, according to the firm and other sources. Representatives from the intelligence services of those countries declined to comment when asked about the report.

Mr Robinson, a retired Australian Army intelligence officer, said Internet 2.0's report is based on purchasing data that is publicly available on Chinese government websites. The data is routinely scraped by an aggregator website - called bidcenter.com.cn - and Internet 2.0's researchers searched for the term "PCR" across the database.

In all, they collected 1,716 procurement contracts from 2007 to the end of 2019, and then spent months checking and analysing the data, Mr Robinson said. A control sample was taken from China's provinces and cities, and the top areas for PCR procurement were compared to Hubei to rule out that an increase was occurring across China.

PCR-related purchases were relatively flat or went up or down slightly in most of the other areas. However, purchases shot up in 2019 in Beijing, according to the report, which does not break down purchases in provinces outside of Hubei by month.

In Hubei province, spending on PCR equipment started inching upwards in 2014. But the jump was particularly big in 2019, to 67.36 million yuan (S$14.2 million) from 36.7 million yuan the year before.

Mr Robinson said the type of Chinese organisations making big purchases of PCR equipment changed in 2019, compared with the previous year, from mainly agricultural research and hospital use to largely disease prevention and control institutions.

In 2019, for instance, the Wuhan University of Science and Technology was the biggest purchaser in Hubei province. The university is affiliated with eight hospitals and has more than 35 teaching practice bases, including 22 general hospitals and 10 disease prevention and control centres, according to the report.

Mr Robinson highlighted three particular purchases in Hubei province that he described as "out of trend" and suggested that Chinese officials were dealing with a novel human pathogen earlier in 2019 than previously disclosed.

The first purchase happened in May 2019, when the Chinese People's Liberation Army Airborne Hospital bought PCR-related equipment, the only contract from the PLA in the database, Mr Robinson said.

The second one occurred in September 2019, when the Wuhan Hongshan District Centre for Disease Control and Prevention made two purchases of pathogen detection equipment for the upcoming Military World Games. The next month, more than 9,000 international athletes from more than 100 countries travelled to Wuhan - and many of them later got sick with Covid-19-like symptoms, the Washington Post reported in June.

China later claimed that the US Army athletes may have brought the virus with them from Fort Detrick in Maryland, where the Army does bioresearch, the Post said.

The third "out of trend" purchase happened in November 2019, according to the report. The Wuhan Institute of Virology - where proponents of the lab leak theory allege the virus emerged from - bought PCR-related equipment.

"These findings challenge existing assumptions around when the pandemic began and support further investigation," the report said.

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