China under-reported its coronavirus cases and deaths by up to half during the early stages of the pandemic, leaked documents have revealed.
Beijing has long been accused of under-reporting its coronavirus numbers, but the data gives an idea of the scale of the problem for the first time.
For example, on February 10 China reported 2,478 new cases of the virus across the entire country – but leaked data shows that, on the same date, Hubei province alone logged 5,918 cases.
Meanwhile on March 7, Hubei was officially reporting a cumulative death toll of 2,986, but documents show it actually stood at 3,456.
The official figures, which were reported across the world, downplayed the severity of the outbreak at a time when world leaders were trying to devise their own response strategies – leaving many unprepared for what was to come.
China was able to use the figures and its authoritarian powers to lock down hard and early, all-but wiping the virus out and meaning its economy has grown this year, while under-prepared western democracies have seen their economies devastated.
On February 10, China reported a total of 2,478 cases in its daily report, which was published around the world. Leaked documents show the total was 5,918 in Hubei province alone
On February 17, the province of Hubei reported 93 new deaths to the public. In fact, documents show that it was 196
Other discrepancies revealed in the data include February 17, when Hubei officially reported 93 deaths from the virus while the documents show a toll of 196.
On March 7, Hubei officially reported 83 cases, but 115 are recorded in the leaked papers.
Another report also records the deaths of six health care workers from coronavirus by February 10, which were never publicly disclosed.
Data also suggests that the number of cases recorded in 2019, when the virus first emerged, was 200.
Until now, China has only publicly acknowledged 44 cases in 2019 – which it reported to the WHO as ‘a pneumonia of unknown etiology’ on January 3.
The documents, comprising 117 pages, were handed to CNN by a whistleblower inside the Hubei Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which was at the epicentre of the outbreak.
The whistleblower described themselves as ‘a patriot’ who was ‘motivated to expose a truth that had been censored, and honor colleagues who had also spoken out.’
Alongside the true case and death tolls, the documents reveal for the first time that Hubei was in the midst of a major flu epidemic at the time coronavirus struck.
By March 7, Hubei had officially logged 2,986 deaths from the virus, but leaked documents show that toll was actually 3,456
On March 7, Hubei province – where epicentre Wuhan was located – reported 83 new infections to the public. Leaked documents give a figure of 115
The province was reporting up to 20 times the normal number of seasonal flu cases in December 2019, centered in the cities of Yichang and Xianning.
Wuhan, where coronavirus would first emerge, was third worst-affected.
Data also shows that a large number of flu cases, including in Wuhan, were diagnosed as ‘unknown cause’ – dating a far back as December 2.
Researchers told CNN that it is possible some of these were mis-diagnosed coronavirus cases, but there is no way to know for sure because the data is simply not available.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, at Johns Hopkins University which has been at the forefront of tracking the virus, said: ‘They were only testing for what they knew.’
China claims it has done studies looking for cases of coronavirus in Wuhan before December 2019, but has been unable to find any.
While there is no suggestion that the outbreaks are linked, the flu epidemic likely left health officials stretched and unprepared for the emergence of a new illness.
The documents also reveal a shambles among China’s early testing regime, which contributed to the cases being under-reported.
According to the data, nucleic acid tests which were initially used to diagnose the virus only worked between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of the time.
Documents also reveal Hubei province was in the midst of a flu epidemic when coronavirus emerged, with hospitals under-funded and staff demoralised (file image)
That meant scientists were often forced to use other methods – such as scans of the lungs – to diagnose patients they were sure had the virus, but whose tests kept coming back negative.
But because of the way China’s reporting system worked, only those cases which had been confirmed by the test were publicly reported.
All other cases were marked down as ‘suspected’ or ‘clinically diagnosed’.
While bureaucrats would have been aware of both figures, and may have been aware of the problems with testing, they chose only to report cases with a positive test – at least initially.
China did start adding ‘clinically diagnosed’ cases to its totals in mid-February, but by then the virus had already spread far beyond its own borders.
Yanzhong Huang, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who specilaises in Chinese public health, told CNN: ‘It was clear they did make mistakes.
‘Not just mistakes that happen when you’re dealing with a novel virus, also bureaucratic and politically-motivated errors in how they handled it.
‘These had global consequences.’
The early testing regime also suffered huge delays, with the average time taken from the onset of disease to diagnosis being 23 days.
That meant China’s official daily totals were lagging three weeks behind reality, while at the same time hampering its own ability to respond to the crisis.
Internal documents also show that Hubei health authorities were under-funded and suffering staff motivation issues when the pandemic struck.
And while Beijing boasted that it had massively invested in early-stage detection of infectious diseases in 2003 during the SARS epidemic, in reality the system was slow, under-funded, and weighed down with bureaucracy.