TOKYO — Purchases of PCR tests in China’s Hubei Province surged months before the first official reports of a novel coronavirus case there, according to a report from researchers in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia.
About 67.4 million yuan ($10.5 million at current rates) was spent on PCR tests in Hubei during 2019, nearly double the 2018 total, with the upswing starting in May.
The report, released by a research team that includes former intelligence officers, is based on records from a website aggregating information on bids for public sector procurement contracts.
The report casts further doubt on China’s official line about the origins of the virus. The report alleges the unusual uptick likely signals awareness of a new disease spreading in and around Wuhan.
Orders doubled from universities, jumped fivefold from the Chinese CDC and surged tenfold from animal testing bureaus. Monthly procurement data shows a spike in orders in May, especially from CDC buyers and the People’s Liberation Army.
“We believe the increased spending in May suggests this as the earliest start date for possible infection,” the report said.
Purchases rose sharply from July through October as well, in particular from the Wuhan University of Science and Technology. The institution spent 8.92 million yuan on PCR tests in 2019, about eight times its total for the previous year.
The university, along with local hospitals and public health authorities, plays a direct role in responding to outbreaks of new diseases, according to the report.
The involvement of these groups provides evidence that “the increase of purchasing was most likely linked to the emergence of COVID-19 in Hubei Province in 2019,” the report said. “We assess with high confidence that the pandemic began much earlier than China informed the W.H.O. about COVID-19.”
Satellite images from Wuhan hospital parking lots show a sharp increase in activity starting in August 2019, according to a study last year by researchers from Harvard and other institutions. But a report in August by U.S. intelligence agencies found no confirmation as to whether the disease spilled over from an animal host or leaked from a lab.
“Internet 2.0 has used our skills to try and provide some reliable data for the world coming to terms with the impacts of this pandemic,” he added, referring to the cybersecurity company that published the report.