Coronavirus Spread in China Slows Drastically But Doubt Remains

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While infections in the rest of the world accelerate, the coronavirus epidemic is showing signs of easing at its center — China — with new cases slowing dramatically and recoveries gathering pace. Still, doubt remains over whether the government’s statistics show the full picture.

On Tuesday, China reported 119 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus, the lowest number in almost six weeks and the fewest since the national government started releasing data on Jan. 21. Of those, 115 cases were in Hubei province, where the virus first emerged in December and which still accounts for the majority of infections and deaths worldwide.

Eighty-four percent of cases, 97% of critical cases and more than 96% of deaths are within the province, which was placed under mass quarantine by the government on Jan. 23 to slow the virus’ spread to the rest of the country. The ongoing lockdown of the region of 60 million people has led to widespread suffering and scores of preventable deaths as the local medical system collapsed under the strain.

The lockdown also meant that China’s fatalities from the pathogen have been confined almost entirely to the province. As of Tuesday, 4.3% of people who were confirmed to have the virus in Hubei have died, while that rate is 0.9% in China outside Hubei.

Over the past three weeks, China’s number of recovered patients has surged both in Hubei and the rest of the country, with the government sending in thousands of health-care workers to help in Hubei. Sixty-two percent of those who’ve been officially diagnosed with the disease are now better and out of hospital, according to the data from the National Health Commission on Wednesday.

Still, mistrust lingers over China’s official statistics, which have been repeatedly revised through the course of the outbreak, including an extraordinary addition of nearly 15,000 cases of infection on Feb. 13. It’s also changed the definition of what is a confirmed case of infection multiple times.

What’s Going On With China’s Coronavirus Case and Death Numbers?

One area of confusion has been over how to account for people who don’t have symptoms but test positive for the disease in a phenomenon known as asymptomatic infection.

At a World Health Organization briefing on Tuesday, infectious disease expert Maria Van Kerkhove said that about 1% of cases in China are asymptomatic at first, but 75% of those patients eventually develop symptoms.

This means that provinces not counting asymptomatic cases in their official tally are likely under-reporting their numbers. There’s some evidence of that: Chinese media outlet Caixin reported that Heilongjiang province in northern China had 104 asymptomatic infections which it did not add to its total of 480 confirmed cases on Feb. 25.

China does not release the number of asymptomatic infections in its daily nationwide tally, underscoring the uncertainty which remains over whether the outbreak is truly contained at its heart.

— With assistance by James Mayger

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