An image shared on social media in September 2020 purported to reveal that international trade data showed dozens of nations bought COVID-19 testing and diagnostic materials more than two years before the coronavirus pandemic was declared and SARS-CoV-2, the responsible virus, was first identified.
The above image was shared to Facebook and Twitter in the first week of September 2020. The screenshots came as conspiracy theories surrounding the origin and severity of the coronavirus proved particularly contagious in 2020. A number of far-fetched COVID-19 misinformation campaigns were shared extensively across the internet, from claims that erroneously argued that SARS-CoV-2 was a man-made bioweapon created in a lab to social media users who falsely pushed the idea that the disease was spread by 5G towers.
One user on Twitter posited, for example, that the reported data was “more proof” that the COVID-19 pandemic was “planned and orchestrated." The tweet went on to argue that dozens of countries preemptively ordered COVID-19 tests “back in 2018 when [the virus] didn’t exist.”
This claim is false, although it is based on a screen capture of real data published in the World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS), a software program provided by the World Bank that allows users access to an international trade database that tracks trade between countries. WITS is a joint initiative between the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and several other leading intergovernmental organizations that tracks the import and export of various goods — including medical supplies and equipment — using the Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System, referred to simply as HS codes.
Before the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, health-related products were tracked in the database under more technical terms as part of the sixth edition of the HS nomenclature first published in 2017 and employed by more than 200 countries in 2020. In April, the World Customs Organization (WCO) followed in the footsteps of the World Health Organization to create a list of HS codes that allowed countries to track the movement of “critical products” related to COVID-19. Each of the numerical codes referenced in the screenshots was in existence in 2017 and still in use in 2020, according to WCO Communications Officer Laure Tempier.
The June 2020 version of the code list included dozens of specific medical devices used to diagnose or treat COVID, such as ventilators and hand sanitizers, which existed and were tracked under WITS before the COVID-19 outbreak. For instance, items coded under 9027.80 are specific to a medical device called a colorimetric carbon dioxide detector that helps medical professionals determine if a patient is correctly connected to a ventilator. Under the revamped 2020 classification system, this item was considered a part of those categorized as “COVID-19 Diagnostic Test instruments and apparatus.”
“The short answer is that these products have had other uses for many years but have become COVID-19 specific [in 2020]," wrote Tempier in an email to Snopes. “These products are medical devices that have long had many other uses but have assumed particular importance because of COVID-19, and have been classified by the WCO as COVID-19 products to facilitate better tracking."
In short, the screenshot in question is authentic but was misinterpreted or misrepresented by social media users to further conspiracy theories about the origin of the disease. In response to the viral images, the World Bank issued a statement noting that the goal of the April and June updates was to "put information about key COVID-related medical supplies in one easy-to-find place.”
“However, in light of misinterpretations that have occurred in recent days, the labeling in the WITS site has been updated to reflect the reality: COVID-19 tests did not exist before 2020,” wrote the WHO, adding that an update provided in early September 2020 correctly labeled COVID-19 test kits as medical tests and had made similar clarifying adjustments in other places.
An archived version of the WITS website saved on Sept. 4 clearly included "COVID-19" in the product description column and continued to do so for the following two days. The change to "medical" was put into place on Sept. 7. At the time of writing, the main database retained all of the original descriptions and labels that existed before the 2020 outbreak. All that has changed is the way in which they are labeled to the public. Full definitions and descriptions of traded goods classified under the HS system can be found on the WITS website.
A side-by-side comparison of the widely circulated screenshot (left) and one of the report as it appeared at the time of writing (right), which is archived here for reference, showed where the word “medical” had replaced “COVID-19” in the updated version.
In its new form, the WITS website included the following statement: "The data here track previously existing medical devices that are now classified by the World Customs Organization as critical to tackling COVID-19."
Tempier added that the WCO classification system is not necessarily “critical to tackling the pandemic.” Rather, it is a “key tool to support countries in identifying and ensuring that goods, which are essential in the fight against the virus, were cleared through borders as swiftly as possible.”
On Feb. 11, 2020, the WHO officially named the severe respiratory disease caused by SARS-CoV-2. COVID-19 is an abbreviation for coronavirus disease 2019. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “CO” stands for corona, “VI” for “virus” and “D” for “disease.” The “19” in the name refers to the year that SARS-CoV-2 was first observed in humans, noted WHO. The disease was previously referred to as 2019-nCoV, which stood for 2019 novel coronavirus.