Coro­n­avirus may be worse than re­ported

• Added ‘lung imag­ing’ test leads to num­bers be­ing ad­justed

Business Day - - FRONT PAGE - Agency Staff Bei­jing /AFP

China’s of­fi­cial num­bers of dead and in­fected from the coro­n­avirus spiked dra­mat­i­cally on Thurs­day af­ter au­thor­i­ties changed their count­ing meth­ods, fu­elling con­cern that the epi­demic is far worse than re­ported.

China’s of­fi­cial num­bers of dead and in­fected from the coro­n­avirus spiked dra­mat­i­cally on Thurs­day af­ter au­thor­i­ties changed their count­ing meth­ods, fu­elling con­cern the epi­demic is far worse than re­ported.

Two top-rank­ing politi­cians over­see­ing the epi­cen­tre of the out­break were also sacked, adding to ques­tions over China’s han­dling of the cri­sis, just hours af­ter Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping claimed “pos­i­tive re­sults” in bat­tling the out­break.

The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion (WHO) also quickly coun­tered Chi­nese re­as­sur­ances that the epi­demic, which has now of­fi­cially killed more than 1,350 people in China, would peak in a weeks. “I think it’s way too early to try to pre­dict the be­gin­ning, the mid­dle or the end of this epi­demic right now,” said Michael Ryan, head of the WHO’s health emer­gen­cies pro­gramme.

The virus has had huge ram­i­fi­ca­tions glob­ally since emerg­ing from the cen­tral Chi­nese prov­ince of Hubei in Jan­uary, as many coun­tries banned trav­ellers from China in a bid to stop people spread­ing the dis­ease.

In Hubei, where tens of mil­lions of people are trapped as part of an un­prece­dented quar­an­tine ef­fort, 242 new deaths were re­ported on Thurs­day. An­other 14,840 people were con­firmed to be in­fected with the virus, with new cases and deaths by far the big­gest one-day in­creases since the cri­sis be­gan.

The jumps raised the death toll to 1,355 and the to­tal num­ber of na­tion­wide in­fec­tions of the virus — of­fi­cially named Covid19 — to nearly 60,000.

Hubei au­thor­i­ties said the huge in­crease was be­cause they had broad­ened their def­i­ni­tion to in­clude people “clin­i­cally di­ag­nosed” via lung imag­ing. Un­til now, au­thor­i­ties had been doc­u­ment­ing cases us­ing a more so­phis­ti­cated lab­o­ra­tory test.

The com­mis­sion said it had looked into past sus­pected cases and re­vised di­ag­noses, sug­gest­ing older cases were in­cluded in Thurs­day’s num­bers.

About 56-mil­lion people in Hubei and its cap­i­tal, Wuhan, are be­ing banned from leav­ing as part of the quar­an­tine ef­forts. Tens of mil­lions of oth­ers in cities far from the epi­cen­tre are also en­dur­ing travel re­stric­tions.

SCEP­TI­CISM

China had been praised by the WHO for its trans­par­ent han­dling of the out­break, in con­trast to the way it con­cealed the ex­tent of the SARS virus epi­demic in 2002-2003. But it has faced con­tin­ued scep­ti­cism from the global pub­lic, and US of­fi­cials have also called for more open­ness from China’s Com­mu­nist Party rulers, leading to fears that there may be sim­i­lar­i­ties with the way it dealt with SARS.

Au­thor­i­ties in Hubei have been ac­cused of con­ceal­ing the grav­ity of the out­break in late De­cem­ber and early Jan­uary. The death of an in­fected doc­tor who had tried to raise the alarm about the out­break then, but was si­lenced by au­thor­i­ties, trig­gered an out­pour­ing of anger in China.

On Thurs­day, the lead­ers of Hubei and Wuhan were sacked, the high­est-pro­file po­lit­i­cal scalps of the cri­sis. Hubei’s two top health of­fi­cials had al­ready been sacked this week.

An­a­lysts said Hubei’s new method­ol­ogy to count in­fec­tions might be for med­i­cal rea­sons and could be be­cause Xi wants of­fi­cials to be more trans­par­ent, but the im­me­di­ate ef­fect was to sow more dis­trust.

“Oddly, this now is a mo­ment of greater trans­parency,” Sam Crane, po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Wil­liams Col­lege in Mas­sachusetts, said. “It is not clear if the prob­lem up to now, on this is­sue, was lack of trans­parency or sim­ply bad med­i­cal prac­tice.”

Yun Jiang, a China re­searcher at Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity, said the new method­ol­ogy may be a “prac­ti­cal mea­sure” since Hubei has a short­age of lab­o­ra­tory test­ing kits. “I don’t think the num­bers are nec­es­sar­ily ma­nip­u­lated for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses but the num­bers them­selves may not be so trust­wor­thy.”

The big­gest clus­ter of cases out­side China is on a cruise ship quar­an­tined off Ja­pan’s coast, where 44 more people tested pos­i­tive for Covid-19, rais­ing the to­tal num­ber of in­fec­tions on the Di­a­mond Princes to 218.

Sev­eral coun­tries have banned ar­rivals from China, while ma­jor air­lines have halted flights to and from the coun­try, as hun­dreds of people have now been in­fected in about two dozen coun­tries. United Air­lines has ex­tended its China flight can­cel­la­tions into late April.

The out­break has wreaked havoc on global events, too.

In Spain, or­gan­is­ers of the world’s top mo­bile telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions trade fair, the World Mo­bile Congress, said the event would be can­celled af­ter an ex­o­dus of in­dus­try heavy­weights over coro­n­avirus fears, in­clud­ing Eric­s­son, Nokia, Face­book, Ama­zon and Voda­fone.

It has also dis­rupted sport­ing events in China: motorsport’s gov­ern­ing body FIA an­nounced the sus­pen­sion of the For­mula One Grand Prix in Shang­hai, orig­i­nally sched­uled for April 19, due to the “con­tin­ued spread” of the coro­n­avirus.

And this week’s Sin­ga­pore Air Show — Asia’s big­gest — was badly hit by ex­hibitors with­draw­ing and low at­ten­dance. US air­craft­maker Boe­ing has warned that there is “no ques­tion” the out­break would ham­mer the avi­a­tion in­dus­try and the broader econ­omy.

The epi­demic has threat­ened to harm the Chi­nese econ­omy, the world’s sec­ond-largest, with ANZ bank warn­ing that China’s first-quar­ter GDP growth would slow to 3.2%-4.0%, down from a pre­vi­ous pro­jec­tion of 5.0%.

IT IS NOT CLEAR IF THE PROB­LEM UP TO NOW, ON THIS IS­SUE, WAS LACK OF TRANS­PARENCY OR SIM­PLY BAD MED­I­CAL PRAC­TICE

AFP

Get­ting ready: Florist Zhao Yuanyuan ar­ranges flow­ers in her shop in Shang­hai, China, ahead of Valen­tine’s Day. /

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