Why China’s data on the coronavirus and its death numbers cannot be trusted

Joseph Klein,

If we are to believe China’s figures, the number of Covid-19 coronavirus cases in China as of March 31 was 82,240, with 3,309 deaths. The United States has now just under 165,000 cases and has surpassed 3000 deaths attributed to the virus – about double the official number of China’s cases and fast approaching China’s official death total. China claims that it has largely defeated the coronavirus and is opening public transportation, schools, and factories. The Chinese Communist Party has promoted itself as the global role model for how to lead a “people’s war” against COVID-19 and save many lives. “Party officials have tried to spin the crisis as a testament to the strength of China’s authoritarian system and its hard-line leader, Xi Jinping,” the New York Times reported, “even announcing plans to publish a book in six languages about the outbreak that portrays him as a ‘major power leader’ with ‘care for the people.’”

China’s officially reported case and death totals to date just happen to be remarkably close to a prediction last February by Stanford University biology professor Michael Levitt. Dr. Levitt, who won the 2013 Nobel Prize in chemistry, predicted that China would peak with around 80,000 cases and 3,250 deaths. Dr. Levitt  has spent a couple of months a year in China. “I became much more interested in China, and seeing the country through the eyes of somebody who has lived there made it very different,” he said. Dr. Levitt was appalled by the travel restrictions imposed by the United States. “It’s crazy,” he said, as quoted by China Daily. “Travel bans don’t help at all. I think all this punishment just leads to under-reporting, and it’s not a good idea.” Although he is not an epidemiologist, the Chinese government featured him with appearances on the Chinese State broadcaster China Global Television Network.

Dr. Levitt is now claiming that the growth of new cases worldwide should slow much faster than many health experts predict, just as he claims happened in China. We hope Dr. Levitt is right but have good reason to be skeptical regarding the validity of China’s official data. Dr. Levitt’s predictions more likely were used by Chinese authorities to lend credibility to the range of numbers that China is willing to report as the peak, rather than constituting validated forecasts of what actually happened.

For example, while the official death toll in Wuhan was around 2,500 people as of March 27, Radio Free Asia reported serious doubts among residents that the true number was that low. “Since the start of the week, seven large funeral homes in Wuhan have been handing out the cremated remains of around 500 people to their families every day,” according to Radio Free China, “suggesting that far more people died than ever made the official statistics.” One Wuhan resident was quoted as saying, “It can’t be right … because the incinerators have been working round the clock, so how can so few people have died?” The true death toll could be as many as 40,000.

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Bloomberg has reported on “long lines and stacks of ash urns greeting family members of the dead at funeral homes in Wuhan” which have called into question “the true scale of coronavirus casualties at the epicenter of the outbreak, renewing pressure on a Chinese government struggling to control its containment narrative.”

No mass testing in China is another reason the numbers should not be compared to the United States, “where we are now doing, late, mass testing,” the chief economist at the China Beige Book said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” Moreover, before this Tuesday, China had not included asymptomatic patients in its publicly released totals of confirmed coronavirus cases.

In any event, there is no reason to believe China’s official numbers today, given the fact that Chinese authorities have been deceptive about the coronavirus outbreak in their country from its earliest days. First, they denied for weeks that the virus could spread through human to human transmission, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. They silenced a Wuhan doctor, who tried to warn early on about the possibility that a troubling cluster of viral infections in one Chinese province could get out of control. The doctor turned out to be right to the nth degree, falling victim himself to the disease. Authorities censored any negative stories in the media or on the Internet about how the government was handling the outbreak. A March 29th tweet from 60 Minutes Australia stated: “Just two weeks ago the head of Emergency at Wuhan Central hospital went public, saying authorities had stopped her and her colleagues from warning the world.  She has now disappeared, her whereabouts unknown.”

The Chinese government has also engaged in a massive disinformation campaign, including trying to pin the blame on the U.S. army for precipitating the outbreak. President Trump is not alone in denouncing China’s lies. Senior ministers in the United Kingdom’s government are furious with China’s blame game and refusal to take responsibility for its own failures. A source quoted by the Daily Mail said,  “There is a disgusting disinformation campaign going on and it is unacceptable. They [the Chinese government] know they have got this badly wrong and rather than owning it they are spreading lies.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson “has been warned by scientific advisers that China’s officially declared statistics on the number of cases of coronavirus could be ‘downplayed by a factor of 15 to 40 times.’”

Once we manage to get past this pandemic, our focus will understandably turn to getting back to our normal lives and restoring the health of the economy. However, we cannot simply put what happened in the rear view mirror and forget where the pandemic started. If we do, the reprieve will be short-lived.

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Chinese government scientists were reportedly conducting research on deadly bat viruses close to a wild animal market in Wuhan where the transmission to humans may have begun. “Several Chinese state media outlets in recent months touted the virus research,” according to a report in the Washington Times. The Wuhan Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the national center for China’s bat virus research. China kept any international disease specialists away from Wuhan for weeks.

Now that China claims it has successfully contained the virus, wet markets where bats are sold have reportedly reopened. These markets should be shut down permanently. And whether or not this coronavirus came from a Chinese research lab or developed naturally in bats before being transmitted to humans, China needs to be far more transparent about the bat virus related research it conducts and the safety procedures in place at its laboratories. As Steven W. Mosher, a China specialist with the Population Research Institute, said, “China claims that the deadly virus did not escape from its biolab. Fine. Prove it by releasing the research records of the Wuhan lab.”

Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a speech entitled “Working Together to Defeat the COVID-19 Outbreak” at the Extraordinary G20 Leaders’ Summit. He said, “We must comprehensively step up international cooperation and foster greater synergy so that humanity as one could win the battle against such a major infectious disease. I propose a G20 COVID-19 assistance initiative for better information sharing and policy and action coordination with the support of the World Health Organization [WHO].  China supports WHO in leading the global efforts to develop science-based and proper control and treatment and minimize cross-border spread.”

President Xi’s proposal to improve information sharing comes several months too late. The World Health Organization accepted at face value the inaccurate information it received from China during the early weeks of the outbreak, when the virus’s spread could have been much more easily contained. WHO has lavished undeserved praise on China’s handling of the virus outbreak. The assistant director-general of WHO said back in February “if I had Covid-19 I’d want to be treated in China.” This same WHO official ducked questions last week about Taiwan’s response to the coronavirus and whether WHO would reconsider Taiwan’s quest to join WHO, which China opposes. He said only that “we’ve already talked about China. And when you look across all the different areas of China, they’ve actually all done quite a good job.”

With WHO effectively serving as China’s propaganda auxiliary, no wonder China wants WHO in the driver’s seat. Without significant reforms, WHO should take a back seat.