Scientists Predict as Many as 44,000 Infected with Coronavirus in China

Residents wearing face masks shop at a market on January 28, 2020 in Macau, China. The number of cases of a deadly new coronavirus rose to over 4000 in mainland China Tuesday as health officials locked down the city of Wuhan last week in an effort to contain the spread …
Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Virus researchers at universities estimate the true number of people infected with a newly discovered coronavirus in China eclipses the Communist Party’s nearly 5,000-person estimate and that as many as 40,000 may be carrying it, reports revealed on Tuesday.

Locals in Wuhan, China, have told multiple media outlets they began to be aware of a respiratory sickness spreading in the city of 11 million people in December. Communist authorities alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) that they believed they had identified a new virus on December 31, then closed the wild game and seafood market believed to have been ground zero of the first infection on January 1. Yet authorities did not tell the public of the discovery of a new virus until January 20, and reports suggest they did not alert doctors and other health workers to isolate people potentially carrying it, exposing hospital patients to widespread contagion.

At press time, the Chinese regime and the WHO have confirmed 4,682 cases of coronavirus worldwide, including six in North America and 106 deaths, all in China. Chinese state media have also identified the youngest known carrier, an 11-month-old child in southern Guangdong, the province that borders Hong Kong.

Experts at Northeastern University estimated on Tuesday that the number was closer to 25,000 than 5,000. At the University of Hong Kong, where the medical school demanded “draconian measures” to stop the disease from spreading, researchers put the number of people currently infected in China at over 40,000.

Given that even Chinese researchers agree the virus incubates for about 14 days, and may potentially be contagious at that point even in people who do not show symptoms, means “it’s not something that’s going to end the next week or the next month,” said Alessandro Vespignani, a professor at Northeastern University, according to Hong Kong’s RTHK broadcaster. Vespignani said his team believes 25,000 people in China are carrying the coronavirus.

“It’s easy to get to twice or three times as much [as the official estimate], even just in the city of Wuhan,” Vespignani explained. “If we start to have other larger areas affected, then those numbers are going to be much, much bigger.”

Gabriel Leung, who runs the University of Hong Kong Medical School, told reporters that about 44,000 people in Wuhan, not counting the rest of China, are probably carrying the virus as of Saturday and that the number of infected people has been doubling every six days – meaning the number, according to his estimates, is inching towards 100,000. Leung also reached the number 25,000, but said this was likely the number of people exhibiting symptoms. Symptoms of the novel virus include fever, difficulty breathing, and coughing that has in many cases led to life-threatening pneumonia.

Leung predicted that the outbreak would continue into the summer, perhaps starting to ease around June or July as the virus makes its way through every possible person. Viral outbreaks typically ease when either doctors introduce a vaccine that inoculates people who have not been infected, or when the virus has contaminated everyone.

These independent estimates of how long it will take for the outbreak to subside differ significantly from what is coming out of Beijing and, if true, would confirm reports from those on the ground in Wuhan that doctors do not have the ability, or authority, to test all those who arrive at hospitals with symptoms, thus significantly bringing down the official tally.

The head of the Communist Party’s special panel to address the coronavirus crisis, Zhong Nanshan, was quoted in state propaganda outlet Xinhua saying that the government believed the outbreak would peak within 7-10 days, then start subsiding.

“So far, no medication has been developed to specifically target the virus, but scientists and medical workers have explored many ways. As great improvement has also been made in life-support systems, the fatality rate is expected to drop further,” Zhong said, according to Xinhua.

Chinese officials have admitted to not doing enough to contain the virus in Wuhan in the early days after confirmation, but before Beijing told the public. The mayor of Wuhan, Zhou Xianwang, said in a press conference Friday that 5 million people freely left Wuhan before the city instituted a lockdown to keep the virus from spreading. Zhou offered to resign, but also blamed higher-ranking Communist Party officials for the city’s secrecy, insisting that he could not publicly reveal details of the viral outbreak without permission from higher-ups.

Despite the failed attempts to contain the virus, WHO Secretary-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus applauded the Party while in Beijing on Monday and Tuesday, appearing alongside Chinese dictator Xi Jinping.

“The WHO speaks highly of China’s major role in and great contribution to the cause of global public health, and is ready to further conduct strategic cooperation with China,” Ghebreyesus said, according to Xinhua.

“The Chinese government has always adopted an open, transparent and responsible attitude to timely release of information on the epidemic, domestically and to other countries,” Xi Jinping said during that meeting. Ghebreyesus did not challenge the assumption.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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