Last week, a study in an Italian medical journal posited that the COVID-19 coronavirus was circulating in Italy as early as September 2019, signalling that the disease might have spread beyond China earlier than previously thought.
Despite major concerns about the research, the Chinese regime was quick to spin the news in its favour on its various media platforms, eliminating key details of the research conclusions and using sketchy science to reinforce doubts over the origins of the outbreak.
The National Cancer Institute in Milan looked at 959 healthy volunteers enrolled in a lung cancer screening trial between September 2019 and March 2020. Researchers found that that 11.6% had developed coronavirus antibodies before February, the institute's Tumori Journal reported.
Italy's first COVID-19 patient was detected on February 21 in a small town near Milan, but reconstructing the chain of contagion has baffled scientists.
If the new research is accurate, it may indicate that the virus began to circulate in Italy asymptomatically before the so-called "patient 1" was identified.
The University of Siena carried out a specific SARS-CoV-2 antibodies test for the same journal titled, "Unexpected detection of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in the pre-pandemic period in Italy".
SARS-CoV-2 is the scientific name for the virus that causes COVID-19 disease.
The study showed that four people were positive for antibodies neutralising the virus during the first week of October, meaning they had been infected in September, Giovanni Apolone, a co-author of the study, told Reuters.
"This is the main finding: people with no symptoms not only were positive after the serological tests but had also antibodies able to kill the virus," Apolone said.
"It means that the new coronavirus can circulate among the population for long and with a low rate of lethality not because it is disappearing but only to surge again," he added.
But Italian scientists are viewing the study with caution.
Massimo Galli, director of the infectious diseases clinical division at Sacco Hospital in Milan, which is also conducting research on the new coronavirus, said he is waiting for "real confirmations".
"It is really difficult to think that the virus is so old, also because then we cannot explain why it did not create outbreaks much earlier," he told Italy's La Republica newspaper. "It is an explosive virus, when it arrives at the hospital it causes tens of infections if you don't manage it."
Other possibilities to consider are the prevalence of false positives and that a proportion of people have been proven to develop antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 after being infected with a regular cold coronavirus.
Despite those concerns, the Chinese regime was quick to spin the news to fit its disinformation narrative.
China's disinformation machine
China Daily, an English-language daily newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist Party, reported that the "study shows that the virus had existed in Italy months before it was first detected in China".
When asked about the latest research out of Italy, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian suggested there have been other reports questioning the time and location of the COVID-19 outbreak.
"It has again shown that tracing the origin of the virus is a complex scientific issue," he told a news briefing in Beijing on Tuesday (November 17).
Zhao has a history of propagating disinformation related to COVID-19.
On March 13 -- the day after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak a pandemic -- he tweeted an unproven claim that the US military might have "brought the epidemic to Wuhan", the epicentre of the pandemic.
Zhao also tweeted articles from a conspiracy website suggesting that the coronavirus originated in the United States rather than in China.
Twitter has since identified those tweets, and their sources, as being potentially malicious, spammy, violent or misleading.
The China Daily article was clearly part of the Beijing's attempts to influence popular opinion outside China, as the paper has an international circulation of about 600,000 and a domestic circulation of about 300,000.
The article also pointed to research published in July by Dr. Tom Jefferson at the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM) at Oxford University.
His research, which has not been peer reviewed, says traces of COVID-19 have been found in sewage samples from Spain, Italy and Brazil which pre-date its discovery in China.
"The explanation could only be that these agents don't come or go anywhere," he told The Daily Telegraph. "They are always here and something ignites them, maybe human density or environmental conditions, and this is what we should look for."
China informed the WHO of the outbreak in Wuhan on December 31, 2019, but the regime's timeline of the outbreak has been widely questioned.
According to Chinese government data seen by the South China Morning Post (SCMP), a 55-year-old from Hubei Province could have been the first person to have contracted COVID-19 on November 17, 2019.
Furthermore, an almost week-long public silence by Chinese authorities in January cost the world a chance to nip the pandemic in the bud, the Associated Press (AP) reported in April.
Chinese officials in secret realised a deadly outbreak had occurred; however, they allowed Wuhan, the city at the epicentre, to host a mass banquet attended by tens of thousands, spreading the virus in all directions.
The delay lasted six days -- January 14 through 19. Finally President Xi Jinping warned the public on January 20, but by then at least 3,000 people had been infected during that period of silence, according to internal documents obtained by the AP and expert estimates.
The delay began in the middle of almost two weeks during which China's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention registered no cases from local officials, even as hundreds of COVID-19 patients were hospitalised nationwide January 5 to 17.
Chinese officials began mobilising only after the first case outside China was diagnosed, in Thailand January 13.
The WHO in May launched two inquiries into the timeline and origins of the outbreak.
China has pledged to support the inquiries, and Chinese scientists are involved in both WHO-led teams, the SCMP reported November 13.
However the success and credibility of the inquiries will depend heavily on the information the teams are able to get from within China, experts warn.
"The question is whether or not first-hand information will be allowed to be gathered independently by the review members or if their access to data will be circumscribed," Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor at City University of Hong Kong, who researches health security and governance, told the SCMP.