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Wuhan’s coronavirus cases may have been 10 times higher than reported

Published Dec 29th, 2020 8:04PM EST
Coronavirus Pandemic
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  • A new coronavirus study from the Chinese CDC says the actual COVID-19 caseload during the original Wuhan epidemic was ten times higher than reported.
  • China used antibody tests to determine how many people contracted the virus, concluding that nearly 4.5% of those tested had COVID-19, which would mean half a million people were infected.
  • China reported over 50,000 confirmed cases in Wuhan, but many have questioned the country’s transparency. Recent leaks have shown many issues that hindered the initial response to the illness, including discrepancies in counting and reporting cases.

A year ago, the first patients infected with the novel coronavirus were puzzling doctors in China. The infection had been quietly spreading for weeks, to the point where more people were coming to the hospital with flu-like symptoms, showing signs of pneumonia. What followed was a massive outbreak in Wuhan that China seemed to get under control fairly quickly. While the West was questioning the country’s transparency on the matter, given China’s behavior with SARS nearly 20 years ago, it seemed like the country had changed. China seemed to share plenty of information about the illness, including infection caseload and fatalities figures.

By the time the infection reached Europe and America, the world found itself battling a mysterious virus. To an extent, it might have been a new mutation that’s largely responsible for COVID-19 turning into a pandemic. But the way the virus behaved in northern Italy and New York seemed to contradict the Wuhan experience. Admittedly, no European country nor the US were able to institute severe lockdowns as China did. But the early outbreaks in Europe and America, combined with China’s increased reluctance, suggested strongly that China might have been misleading the world about the severity of the Wuhan epidemic.

A year later, we still have no idea how it started, and a China-WHO investigation is yet to start formally. But China has released a new study that tried to determine the number of infected people in the Wuhan region. The Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly half a million people in Wuhan might have been infected, 10 times higher than the number of official COVID-19 cases.

Wuhan reported a total of 50,354 COVID-19 cases, CNN reports. The antibody study was conducted a month after China “contained the first wave of the Covid-19 epidemic.”

The study used a sample of 34,000 people in Wuhan’s general population and found that 4.43% of the residents had antibodies. Applying the same percentage to Wuhan’s 11 million population gives us a rough figure of around 477,000 infections.

The study also indicates that authorities were able to contain the virus to the city of Wuhan with great success. Just 0.44% of residents in other cities in the Hubei province had antibodies.

The fact that a larger percentage of Wuhan’s population may have been infected during the initial outbreak isn’t surprising. The same thing happened in other regions of the world. Similar antibody tests from Spain, New York, and the entire US showed that the number of COVID-19 cases confirmed via PCR testing was usually significantly higher than the total number of infected people in those communities. Many people were asymptomatic. Some of the people who experienced milder versions of the illness might not have sought tests or did not qualify for them, especially when there was not enough testing to go around.

What makes China different is that transparency has always been a problem for Wuhan’s COVID-19 figures. Reports during the initial outbreak and leaks that followed showed that authorities were underreporting cases and deaths. Officials had to revise cases and fatalities during the Wuhan outbreaks. Even so, the final figure, 50,354, might not accurately depict the true number of cases confirmed during the period.

One thing that stood out in various reports was China’s reluctance to count asymptomatic cases in the official stats. The recent Wuhan Files leaks showed that, aside from the initial chaos that hindered the response to the infectious disease, China kept changing the diagnosis criteria and how it counted cases.

Since China’s transparency has been questioned throughout the year, the antibody study that China CDC has published can also be questioned. The study has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. There’s no way to verify that the figures are accurate or repeat the testing. Not to mention that antibodies tend to disappear from the bloodstream after a few months, so they wouldn’t show up in new tests.

Still, the study shows that China is willing to admit to a certain degree of severity when it comes to the original COVID-19 epidemic. We’ll never know how many of those nearly half a million cases were actually detected during the 76-day lockdown in Wuhan.

The study also shows that China could share with the world more details about coronavirus immunity if it wanted to. It’s the only country to have enough COVID-19 cases dating back to 2019 to study. However, sharing such figures would confirm that China is a lot closer to figuring out the origin story of COVID-19 than it’s willing to say.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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