COVID-19 test kits were not purchased in 2017 and 2018; claim is based on mislabeled data

CLAIM
“World Bank website shows COVID-19 testing kits purchased by countries in 2017 and in 2018”
DETAILS
Inaccurate: COVID-19 test kits were not being sold in 2017 and 2018. The claim is based on mislabeled data on the World Integrated Trade Solutions (WITS) website, which has since been corrected.
KEY TAKE AWAY
Test kits for the virus that causes COVID-19 were only developed in 2020, since scientists only discovered the virus in January 2020. It is impossible for scientists to develop a test kit for a virus that is undiscovered. The claim that COVID-19 test kits were being sold in 2017 and 2018 is based on an error in data labeling on the World Integrated Trade Solutions (WITS) website, a resource that allows users to access and retrieve information on trade and tariffs. The error has since been corrected.

FULL CLAIM: “World Bank website shows COVID-19 testing kits purchased by countries in 2017 and in 2018”

REVIEW


Claims that the coronavirus pandemic was planned has been fanned by online posts showing data tables from the World Integrated Trade Solutions (WITS) website, developed by the World Bank and other organizations, which “allows users to access and retrieve information on trade and tariffs.” These tables appear to report that COVID-19 test kits were already being sold in 2017 and 2018 (archived here and here, respectively), which contradicts our present understanding that the pandemic started in 2019. The claim was posted on the imageboard 4chan on 5 September 2020 and was also shared by Ben Swann on Facebook.

However, as we explain below, this claim is based on a misunderstanding of how the system used to track exports and imports, called the Harmonized System (HS), works. And it is likely little more than the result of an error in data labeling on the WITS website. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce:

Among industry classification systems, Harmonized System (HS) Codes are commonly used throughout the export process for goods. The Harmonized System is a standardized numerical method of classifying traded products. It is used by customs authorities around the world to identify products when assessing duties and taxes and for gathering statistics.

The HS is administrated by the World Customs Organization (WCO) and is updated every five years. It serves as the foundation for the import and export classification systems used in the United States and by many trading partners.

Swann’s Facebook post shows that the HS code associated with COVID-19 test kits is 382200. The assignment of this code to COVID-19 test kits was established in the HS classification reference for COVID-19 medical supplies, jointly issued on 9 April 2020 by the WCO and the World Health Organization. The reference also explains that this code is based on a pre-existing HS classification from 2017 (Figure 1). Therefore, the HS code 382200 was already in use two years before the pandemic.

HS classification for COVID-19 test kits
Figure 1. Screenshot of a table in the HS classification reference for COVID-19 medical supplies. Note that COVID-19 test kits come under a pre-existing HS code set in 2017 (in red).

The code is associated with medical test kits in general and is not specific to COVID-19 test kits only. This is demonstrated by the WITS pages which display all imports by country under the code 388200 (2017 and 2018), showing that the data displayed pertains to “Reagents; composite diagnostic or laboratory reagents, other than those of heading no. 3002 or 3006” (Figure 2). In short, this broad description can apply to any medical test kit.

2017 all imports 382200
Figure 2. Screenshot of the WITS page which displays all 2017 imports by country under the code 388200.

The code’s association with medical kits in general is corroborated by the Italian news organization Open, which reported in their fact-check of the same claim that the code 382200 can also be found in descriptions of a kit that processes semen and a test kit for detecting Cryptococcus, a disease-causing fungus. All of this information together indicates that the data tables for 2017 and 2018, which supposedly apply to COVID-19 test kits, are actually displaying information about previously existing medical test kits from before the pandemic.

The WITS website has since corrected the tables (2017 and 2018) to display “Medical test kits” in the title rather than “COVID-19 test kits”. It has also been updated to include an explanatory note: “The data here track previously existing medical devices that are now classified by the World Customs Organization as critical to tackling COVID-19” (Figure 3).

HS classification corrected on WITS
Figure 3. A comparison of the webpage displayed at this URL address before (top) and after (bottom) the update. An archive of the original webpage can be seen here.

Numerous conspiracy theories regarding the origins of the coronavirus began almost as soon as the pandemic itself. The persistent claim that the pandemic is a manmade event is based on faulty premises and has been repeatedly debunked by fact-checkers. This claim is no different, as these online posts which supposedly provide evidence of a conspiracy are likely founded on an error that led to mislabeled data, which has since been corrected by WITS. Given that scientists only discovered the virus in early 2020, it is impossible for COVID-19 test kits to have been available two years ago.

 

Published on: 08 Sep 2020 | Editor:

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