News Analysis: China’s COVID-19 Numbers Are Likely Fiction

It has not been clearly reported how China managed to stop COVID-19.

While there is the widely circulated story that China stopped the spread through a rigorous regime of testing and containment there are reasons to question how exactly this nation of 1.4 billion managed to not just slow but completely stop the spread of a virus that can (1) survive on ordinary surfaces for days, (2) can be spread by people who are asymptomatic, and (3) can have an incubation period lasting weeks. It is also unclear how China managed to stop the community spread of this easily transmittable virus, SARS-CoV-2, when “foreign nationals” appear to be re-introducing the virus to China on a daily basis. American media coverage of this issue has largely involved taking the Chinese state media’s proclamations at face value, including a bold-face headline at the top of on 3/19/2020; this may have been a mistake.

There are good reasons for skepticism. The pandemic came under control in China only after reports surfaced stating that millions of Chinese business were at risk of failure due to a prolonged mass-quarantine. The number of Chinese deaths almost perfectly matched the reported predictions of an amateur epidemiologist, Michael Levitt, and the final numbers from China were only off 0.3% from Levitt’s uncanny predictions. (And if you aren’t familiar with the error rates of prediction models, this level of accuracy in predictive models is virtually unheard of.) It may also be a flag that the Chinese health department claimed that its prime working age demographic had an almost insignificant risk of death, and that the death rate was 0.2% across the entire working age population, with seemingly no variation between age brackets. I don’t just find these things odd: I wonder if they may be too good to be true.

It’s well reported that the Chinese government has a long history of self-serving data manipulation, truth distortion, and propaganda, specifically around its economic GDP numbers. In the early days of the pandemic there were reports that strongly suggested that China was likely under-reporting the spread of COVID-19, including deaths, and there were stories of Chinese citizens living in Wuhan whose relative abruptly died—seemingly of the coronavirus—without having their death recorded in official epidemic statistics. Based on these accounts, the Western media should have been more skeptical of the data China provided: instead of reporting on the Chinese numbers as good news or bad news, they should have been asking if the reported numbers were true or false.

The current success in China reads like propaganda. China declared complete success against COVID-19 even as they claimed the virus was being re-introduced into their country, and the spread of the virus defied epidemiological models by spreading exponentially, only to come to a complete stop a few weeks later; a phenomena that makes even less sense given how chaotic the Chinese response to COVID-19 has been.

I think there is sufficient reason to ask if the Chinese government has two ledgers on the new coronavirus: one for purpose of foreign propaganda, and another for Communist Party Officials handling the crisis. It seems quite possible to me, given the likely premature “Mission Accomplished”, that instead of actively working to contain the virus, the Chinese government has made the decisions to sacrifice a significant percentage of their population in the name of their economy. While it is also possible they have a treatment or cure for the disease that they are not sharing—one which may have effectively ended COVID-19 deaths within the country—it hasn’t been reported yet in the West. I think data manipulation is more likely.

But to be clear, the world desperately needs an effective treatment regime for COVID-19. As of now, mortality rates of those infected by COVID-19 appear to be approaching 10% in Northern Italy (even though the number may be lower, given the lack of universal testing), and the United States may not be far behind Italy.

While the elderly have been disproportionately affected in Italy, data from the United States suggest the virus can inflict life-threatening symptoms on the young. It is likely that without enough respirators or proper hospital care a non-trival percentage of younger adults in the United States will die in this pandemic. And when the bodies are counted, will the final working age mortality rate be 0.2% across the board as China claims? Or will it be 1%, 3%, or even 10%? It’s unlikely we will know for some time, because US testing capacity for COVID-19 is still minimal. And until everyone in the population contracts this new coronavirus, there may be no way to verify the Chinese figures.

While there is some ambiguity on whether economic decisions may have been driving China’s coronavirus data and policy response, there is no doubt in the States that economic considerations are now foremost in the mind of some U.S. leaders. The President of the United States appears to be contemplating the abandonment of coronavirus control efforts by Easter, with the hope this action would allow the economy to re-start). Doing this would be a risky gamble, as it would almost certainly trigger the collapse of the American medical system while at the same time possibly failing to restart the economy.

While, by my read, no country in the world currently has the coronavirus under control (with the possible extraordinary exception of South Korea) there is a very real possibility that the virus is far worse and more difficult to contain and control than the Chinese number suggest. And if China’s COVID-19 numbers are fictional or partially fictionalized, and there is no real virus containment in China, we may have no idea what we are in for, or even how the deaths will be distributed by age.

Stay calm, but brace yourself.

Note: As I was finalizing details of this post, The Washington Post broke the American media silence and reported some quality skepticism about China’s coronavirus reporting. The report was originally titled “China is Reporting Big Success on the Coronavirus Fight. Don’t Trust the Numbers.” (The title was unfortunately watered-down by editors, but the original title is preserved in the article’s URL address.

4/1/2020 Updates: Bloomberg News reported that U.S. intelligence agencies believe China’s coronavirus numbers to be fake; the President of the United States quietly abandoned his “Easter Normalcy” plan on 3/30 after first making ostentatious and distracting threats to close the borders of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut; polling data released from Gallup showed that 87% of the country plans to limit their ordinary activities until the crisis lessens or resolves; and China kicked off a new global COVID-19 disinformation campaign, which promises to be slightly more believable than the last one.