Covid 19: Coronavirus 'spreading virulently' in Wuhan much earlier than previously thought, report suggests
Covid was spreading "virulently" in Wuhan as early as summer 2019 – far sooner than previously thought, according to an intelligence analysis of spending on PCR testing equipment.
A new report claims to have uncovered "notable, significant and abnormal" purchases of PCR lab equipment in the second half of that year.
Analysts trawled through PCR procurement contracts in Hubei Province, of which Wuhan is the capital, and found spending had almost doubled on the previous year.
The study by Internet 2.0, a cyber security consultancy that specialises in examining data from China, says: "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 data and findings have been passed to US government officials amid growing speculation that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan and its existence was covered up for months.
According to the more accepted version of events, Covid originated in a "wet market" selling live animals in Wuhan at the beginning of December.
But the new report claims spending on PCR equipment – standard kit in laboratories for amplifying small amounts of DNA and critical in tracking Covid – in Hubei Province increased to £7.8 million (NZ$15.2m) in 2019 from £4m the year before and £3.3m in 2017.
The total 2019 contract value, according to Internet 2.0, was higher than the previous two years put together. The report also found the number of PCR contracts increased from 89 in 2018 to 135.
The report's authors claim the growth in spending was accounted for by contracts at four main 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.
The report says this is of huge importance because of the bodies' roles in disease control and prevention.
The report alleges that the "significant increase in spending" was noticed from the summer of 2019, beginning as early as May – seven months before public health officials in China notified the World Health Organisation (WHO) that a mysterious illness was spreading through Wuhan.
The report concludes: "We assess with high confidence that the pandemic began much earlier than China informed the WHO about Covid-19."
The analysts at Internet 2.0 carried out a "robust and exhaustive assessment" of hundreds of procurement contracts for PCR equipment found on open-sourced databases throughout the province between 2007 and 2019.
According to the report, a closer examination of spending in 2019 showed an "elevated purchasing trend" by two animal testing laboratories, the Chinese military and the CDC.
"We believe the increased spending in May suggests this as the earliest start date for possible infection," the study claims, adding: "We assess with medium confidence that the significant increase in PCR purchasing starts in July 2019."
Notable contracts found by the investigators included £35,000 spent in early November by the Wuhan institute of Virology on PCR instrumentation. One theory is that the virus leaked from its lab.
The study also raises questions about two purchases of pathogen detection equipment, totalling £205,000, made by the Wuhan CDC in September and used for the Military World Games held in the city a month later. Athletes have since claimed they fell ill with Covid-like symptoms after returning from the event.
"These findings," says the report, "challenge existing assumptions around when the pandemic began. The study concludes that a significant increase in spending in PCR equipment correlates to the spread of Covid-19."
PCR – short for polymerase chain reaction – testing has become commonplace since the start of the pandemic and is critical in tracking the virus and underpinning the isolation policy deployed by almost all governments.
In a statement, the authors David Robinson, a former Australian army intelligence officer, and Robert Potter, a cyber security expert, said: "The data directly challenges the statements by the Chinese government on when the emergence of Covid-19 occurred in Wuhan.
"The significant increase in PCR purchasing by institutions in Hubei Province starting from May 2019, and the direct change in 2019 to major purchasers being directly connected with institutions responsible for disease control and prevention point to the assessment that the pandemic began much earlier than China informed the WHO about the emergence of Covid-19."
The authors said the findings tallied with an unclassified official US intelligence assessment, published in the summer, which found the outbreak "occurred no later than November 2019", although Internet 2.0 believes it occurred some months before.
The analysts said they could offer no insight into how the virus first spread, adding: "The fact 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 only answer we can already rely on is China covered up early information on the virus and has been obstructive from the start."
The Telegraph attempted to contact a number of institutions named in the report on Monday, but received no response.
China has repeatedly denied that the virus originated from a lab contamination, although last week President Xi Jinping said further study of its origins was needed.
In a statement, officials said the country had been "transparent" and that China had "immediately released information about the epidemic domestically and abroad, to the WHO, and the international community, and immediately determined and published the full genetic sequence of the virus".
It said the "facts are clear and stand the test of time and history".