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Report: New PCR test intelligence around Wuhan suggests COVID-19 was virulent earlier than thought

The coronavirus may have been spreading through Wuhan, China much earlier than previously thought, according to an analysis of Chinese procurement records by Internet 2.0, a company that specializes in digital forensics and intelligence analysis. 

According to a report released Monday, entitled “Procuring for a Pandemic: An Assessment of Hubei Province PCR Procurement Contracts,” there was a dramatic increase in the number of Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR, contracts inked by Hubei Province and institutions in and around Wuhan in the second half of 2019.

The Trump administration had long maintained, without evidence, that it was not coincidence that the virus appeared to come from a wet market not far from a lab in Wuhan that focused on the coronavirus. The Biden administration, for its part, has asked U.S. intelligence agencies to redouble their efforts to find the origin of the pandemic. The report from Internet 2.0 offers yet another thread to pull — third party data points in the form of PCR-related procurement contracts. 

“An initial view of the data depicts the dramatic increase of PCR procurement contracts in 2019,” the report says. “The increase was present in both the contract total value and the number of contracts.” 

PCR tests are the gold standard for COVID-19 virus testing and if there was spike in the use of those tests in the Spring of 2019, as the report suggests, that could mean the timeline for when the virus was actually spreading in the wild would dramatically shift: from December 2019 to as early as May 2019.

Among other things, there was a dramatic increase in the total amount of money spent on these tests in and around Wuhan, in Hubei province, the report said. In 2015, institutions there spent about 19.1 million yuan ($2.9 million) on PCR tests. Two years later, in 2017, they spent about 29.1 million yuan and in 2018, institutions around Wuhan spent 36.7 million on these tests. 

But when analysts looked at the spending in 2019, the government contract value for PCR tests was higher than the previous two years combined: 67.4 million yuan. (The tests got more expensive, which also suggests they got pricer as demand went up, the report says.)

A team of experts from the World Health Organization investigating the origins of the pandemic visited The Wuhan Institute of Virology back in June to see if it could link its research on coronaviruses with the pandemic. WHO’s findings have been inconclusive, though the Internet 2.0 report notes that the institute was one of the biggest purchasers of PCR tests and equipment in the second half of 2019. 

The company’s analysis is based on data collected through bidcenter.com.cn, which tracks Chinese government contracts. According to the researchers, there were 52 contracts found in 2015, and about the same number in 2016. In 2019, though, institutions like the Wuhan University of Science and Technology, the Wuhan CDC, and Hubei CDC had secured 135 contracts for PCR tests. Nearly double the number of the previous two years combined. 

The monthly breakdown of purchases offers clues, too. There was a significant increase in spending on PCR tests and equipment over the summer of 2019, starting in May, which was remarkably different from the spending patterns in previous years. 

“The full inventory of this catastrophe is still being compiled,” Robert Potter, one of the authors of the report, said in a written statement. “What is clear is that investigating the coverup of the virus still has some distance to go before it is fully understood. The data presented here gives us a strong indication that the outbreak started prior to December 2019, meaning the information gap and window for the emergence of the virus is larger than when we started this project.”

He said they would be continuing their investigation.

Dina Temple-Raston

Dina Temple-Raston is the host and executive producer of the Click Here podcast and senior correspondent at The Record. She previously served on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories about national security, technology, and social justice.

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