In one of many shocking videos circulating on Twitter, a recent clip of a doctor in Hunan that was widely shared by credible journalists covering the outbreak has caught our attention because it supports our theory - which has become increasingly widely adopted among the western press - that Chinese health officials are seriously undercounting the number of cases and deaths.
惊恐：湖南中医药大学第二附属医院的这位医生一天确诊50个冠状病毒患者，累到浑身湿透，没力气说话…… pic.twitter.com/kMh2Wl2Zl2— 实话实说 (@jMcSVGx9oRuiEir) February 22, 2020
As the Washington Post wrote in a piece published earlier this week: "Chinese leaders and state media strike a coordinated note this week about the government’s ability to contain the outbreak, inconsistencies and sudden changes in official data are leaving experts — and journalists — struggling to plot meaningful trends, or even place any confidence in the figures coming from government."
The WaPo reporters pointed to a clear case of manipulation where the authorities suppressed the true number of cases.
Authorities in Hubei province reported good news Thursday: There were only 349 new coronavirus cases the previous day, the lowest tally in weeks.
The bad - and puzzling - news? Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, reported 615 new cases all by itself.
Hubei authorities have changed their criteria for counting cases three times over the past week or so.
Hubei officials explained that they deducted cases that have not been confirmed through genetic tests from their total reported number of cases. Since this mistake was very, very public, we also reported on it.
But we've been reporting on this for weeks. The mainstream press in the US has since caught on, as the WaPo post shows. As its reporters claim, though there is no obvious smoking gun, most experts still believe China is underreporting cases based on mathematical algorithms and other methods used to project the rate of infection.
There is no smoking gun suggesting that Chinese officials fabricate numbers - at least not since late January. But many researchers say the official figures probably underestimate the true numbers because of limited testing capacity and the prevalence of cases with mild or no symptoms. That is why having case numbers collected with consistent methodology would help scholars chart the general contours, if not the precise values, of how the epidemic is unfolding.
We could go back all the way to the first "shift" in China's reporting methodology on Feb. 12, when officials reported the first major spike in cases, shaking market confidence in the process, until Beijing axed two senior local officials in one of many obvious scapegoatings by Beijing.
China's numbers have consistently kept the fatality rate from the virus at around 2%. But given the exponential rate of spread outside China, and evidence that it acted too late with its quarantine's to really blunt the outbreak, some suspect that this number, too, will rise once researchers get a fuller picture of what's happening on the ground.