The first wave of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in mainland China might have infected more than 232,000 people, says a study by Hong Kong researchers. This is four times the official figures China had released in February.
In typical communist fashion, China had announced a censored figure of about 55,000 cases as of 20 February. However, a team of researchers at Hong Kong University’s School of Public Health found out that Beijing had not used the standard definition of the coronavirus disease the world accepts until two months ago. The Lancet, which had earlier carried out its own study on the outbreak in China, saying that its figures were inaccurate, has published the findings of the Hong Kong University team as well.
Even now, China does not admit the actual numbers, claiming that about 83,000 cases have been reported since the outbreak. Across the world, coronavirus has claimed more than 1,84,000 lives while infecting more than 26 lakh.
The United States and Australia now lead the international community in mounting pressure for an inquiry into the virus’s origins. The two countries have demanded an international investigation into the management of the outbreak by China.
Researchers explain why China’s coronavirus count is wrong
Initially, the Hong Kong team found that China’s diagnostic criterion was narrow. China’s national health commission revised it seven times between 15 January and 3 March as its substandard laboratory was upgraded and new information about the disease became available.
The Hong Kong research assessed data from the World Health Organization’s mission to Wuhan up to 20 February. It calculated that each of the first four changes increased by 2.8 to 7.1 times the proportion of cases detected and counted. “If the fifth version of the case definition had been applied throughout the outbreak with sufficient testing capacity, we estimated that by 20 February 2020, there would have been 232,000 … confirmed cases in China, as opposed to the 55,508 confirmed cases, reported,” the study said.
The two anomalies pushed the researchers to reexamine the number of cases that could have been missed if the final criterion had been applied right when the outbreak was reported.
The Hong Kong researchers say China’s first diagnostic guidelines required six specific criteria to be met for a patient to be a confirmed case of COVID-19. Some of these criteria were:
- the patient’s epidemiological link to Wuhan or a wet market in Wuhan and
- a full genome sequencing test of a patient’s respiratory specimen showing a close homology with the coronavirus disease
The scientists wrote, “In China, broadening the case definitions allowed, over time, a greater proportion of infections to be detected as cases. The true number of infections could still be higher than that currently estimated, considering the possibility of under-detection of some infections, particularly those that were mild and asymptomatic, even under the broadest case definitions.”
Difference in flaws of other governments
While many poorer countries have been accused of shoddy counting of deaths and infections, China, the world says, is guilty of a lack of transparency in its reporting of figures. Last week, Beijing said, for example, that the death toll in Wuhan, the origin of the virus, was 50% higher than what had been first reported.
Richer countries have faltered too but not by behaving n a fishy manner. The UK, for example, counted only deaths in hospitals and the numbers published weekly by the Office of National Statistics, which include deaths in the community. This obviously would not tally with the larger numbers reported from all sources. Financial Times reported this week the true death toll in the UK could be 41,000 — twice what has been recorded.
The official figures for infections in the UK are lower also due to the lack of adequate testing.
Sometimes, multiple authorities have led to mismatching results for example, in Spain where the federal government and Madrid’s regional government today reported mutually conflicting figures for deaths.
But neither of the two discrepancies above is an act similar to China’s constant act of changing figures.
And amid all this, China is brazening it out, putting up a brave front while facing the Donald Trump administration’s publicly made accusations against Beijing. Yesterday, Chinese ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai said there was a need for “a serious rethink of the foundations” of US-China relations. He slammed US politicians for “ignoring” scientists and making “groundless” accusations.
That, of course, did not make the US flinch. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said his country believed China had failed to report the outbreak of the virus in time. Worse for China, President Donald Trump almost says the virus escaped from a Chinese lab. While China denies the charge of this being a biological weapon, it concedes the virus leaked!