China releases new data on asymptomatic coronavirus cases—but doubts about its COVID-19 numbers remain

April 1, 2020, 8:30 AM UTC

China this week released additional data about its coronavirus crisis, but so far the disclosures are not quelling concerns that the country is underreporting the true scope of its COVID-19 outbreak.

On Tuesday, China revealed for the first time its number of asymptomatic coronavirus cases. The National Health Commission said 1,541 asymptomatic COVID-19 cases were under medical observation. It said it would start including asymptomatic infections in its official coronavirus count, which had until then excluded the figures. On Wednesday, China’s updated data included 1,367 asymptomatic cases, down from the previous day. Of the asymptomatic cases, 130 were reported within the last day, making up over three-quarters of the 166 new cases overall in China on Wednesday.

The new figures reflect the current number of asymptomatic cases; what remains unknown is how many asymptomatic infections China has had over the course of its outbreak. Without that comprehensive total, the extent of China’s experience with the disease, which it says has infected 83,225 people and killed 3,312, is incomplete.

China’s underreporting

Carriers of the coronavirus can indeed pass it on to others even if they don’t have symptoms of the disease themselves; that’s what makes containing it so tricky. China’s government has acknowledged this fact, but since Feb. 7, its health commission has excluded these cases from its official public coronavirus count, even as it asks local authorities to report such cases to the central government.

Leaked documents obtained in March by the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong–based newspaper, reportedly reveal that the number of asymptomatic cases in China is far greater than what China disclosed this week. The classified government documents said that more than 43,000 people in China were confirmed carriers of coronavirus by the end of February but were left off official tallies because they hadn’t presented symptoms. Taking the leaked figure at face value would mean that the number of all confirmed cases in China exceeds 125,000, a full third higher than the country’s official total.

As those outside China cast doubt at its data, Beijing indicated recently that it had questions about its own, internal figures.

Last week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang ordered local authorities to be more forthcoming in their daily reports, signaling that the central government was aware that local officials had underreported case counts to the central government.

“I think there were municipalities and localities that didn’t want to fully admit the extent of the crisis,” said professor Nicholas Thomas, an expert in infectious diseases and governance at the City University of Hong Kong. He added that pressure from Beijing to restart the economy had likely caused local governments to undercount coronavirus cases.

There is also evidence that the Chinese public is skeptical that the virus is as contained as the data suggests. Over the weekend, citizens attempting to leave Hubei Province, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in China, clashed with police from nearby provinces, who were reluctant to let arrivals from Hubei cross their borders even though Hubei’s lockdown had lifted.

Bracing for a second wave

China’s push for more transparency from local officials and its own decision to share more data comes as the country tries to stave off a second wave of the coronavirus, this time from imported cases.

In recent weeks, the vast majority of new coronavirus cases in China have come from returning travelers. China had 806 total imported infections on Tuesday. The threat of such cases has prompted renewed social restrictions, even as China’s factories, offices, and shops try to get back to business.

After roughly 600 movie theaters in the country reopened in late March, China’s film commission announced that all of the country’s movie theaters would once again close eight days later.

On Saturday, China closed its borders to all foreign visitors, even those with valid visas and residence permits, and announced that airlines could fly only one roundtrip journey per week to any given country. There’s also growing unease directed at the foreigners who remain. They’ve been turned away from hotels, restaurants, shops, and other establishments out of fear that they might be carriers of the disease, even though many of them likely weathered the crisis from within China.

In releasing more data on asymptomatic carriers, China is hoping to instill more confidence among peer nations and its own citizens that it can successfully avoid a second wave of the pandemic. But outside the country, there’s still skepticism of the data, and inside the country, everyday life remains on edge.

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