With 139 new cases, China's coronavirus spread is slowing - but doubt remains

Medical staff assist a patient infected by the coronavirus leaving Wuhan No.3 Hospital to travel to Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan on March 4, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, AFP) - While infections in the rest of the world accelerate, the coronavirus epidemic is showing signs of easing at its centre - China - with new cases slowing dramatically and recoveries gathering pace. Still, doubt remains over whether the government's statistics show the full picture.

China reported 139 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus on Wednesday (March 4). That was a slight rise from Tuesday, which had been the lowest number in almost six weeks and the fewest since the national government started releasing data on Jan 21.

Of those, 134 cases were in Hubei province, where the virus first emerged in December and which still accounts for the majority of infections and deaths worldwide.

The new cases bought the total accumulated number to 80,409. The uptick on Wednesday was driven by an increase in cases in Wuhan, the provincial capital of Hubei, where new infections climbed to 131 from 114 a day earlier.

But the number of new confirmed cases in Hubei, excluding Wuhan, has remained in single digits for seven consecutive days, with just three new infections recorded on Wednesday.

In the rest of mainland China, outside Hubei, there were only five new confirmed cases, fenced in by tough public health measures imposed to contain the spread of the pathogen.

The death toll from the outbreak in mainland China reached 3,012 as of the end of Wednesday, up by 31 from the previous day. Hubei accounted for all of the new deaths. In Wuhan, 23 people died.

While new virus cases have accelerated elsewhere, the epidemic is showing signs of easing in China.

That's giving Chinese policymakers room to shift their focus to getting the nation back on its feet. The economy was likely running at 60 per cent to 70 per cent of capacity last week, compared with about 50 per cent in early February, according to Bloomberg Economics.

Lingering doubts

Still, doubt remains over whether the government's statistics show the full picture.

Eighty-four percent of Chinese cases, 97 per cent of critical cases and more than 96 per cent of deaths are within Hubei 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 Wednesday, 4.3 per cent of people who were confirmed to have the virus in Hubei have died, while that rate is 0.8 per cent 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. Almost 65 per cent 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 Thursday.

But that may not be as comforting as it looks, with a report from Wuhan that a man who died due to a coronavirus infection had earlier been discharged from hospital after recovering and testing negative. The report from Chinese media The Paper was later removed from the internet.

Another area of concern is the growing number of people infected with the coronavirus coming to China. China is now worried about importing cases from abroad, as the virus has since spread to some 80 countries and territories, infecting more than 10,000 and killing more than 200 abroad.

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There had been 20 such cases through Wednesday, according to the statement from National Health Commission. The customs bureau reported on Wednesday that there had been 75 cases of confirmed Covid-19 cases among inbound passengers as of March 3. It is unknown why the two numbers are different.

Public mistrust

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.

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. In the Feb 19 revision to the treatment guidelines, the National Health Commission said asymptomatic cases should not be counted as confirmed cases.

At a World Health Organisation briefing on Tuesday, infectious disease expert Maria Van Kerkhove said that about 1 per cent of cases in China are asymptomatic at first, but 75 per cent 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 over whether the outbreak is truly contained at its heart.

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