Virus death toll soars as China changes counting methods

BEIJING (AFP) – China’s official death toll from the new coronavirus spiked dramatically yesterday after authorities changed their counting methods, fuelling concern the epidemic is far worse than being reported.

As the figures soared in China, a troubling new front opened abroad as neighbouring Vietnam placed 10,000 people under quarantine after six COVID-19 cases were discovered in a cluster of villages – the first such lockdown overseas.

Under criticism at home over the handling of the crisis, China’s Communist Party sacked two top-ranking officials in Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak.

The developments came hours after President Xi Jinping claimed “positive results” from efforts to contain an epidemic that has now officially killed 1,367 people and infected nearly 60,000.

But the World Health Organization (WHO) warned it was too soon to declare victory.

A patient thanks a doctor in Jinyintan Hospital, designated for critical COVID-19 patients, in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province. PHOTO: AP

“I think it’s way too early to try to predict the beginning, the middle or the end of this epidemic right now,” said head of WHO’s health emergencies programme Michael Ryan.

In Hubei and its capital Wuhan, where tens of millions of people are trapped as part of an unprecedented quarantine effort, 242 new deaths were reported yesterday.

Another 14,840 people were confirmed to be infected in Hubei alone, with the new cases and deaths by far the biggest one-day increases since the crisis began.

Outside Hubei, there were 14 more deaths but the number of new cases fell for a ninth day in a row, with 312 extra patients.

Hubei authorities said the increases were because they had broadened their definition for infection to include people “clinically diagnosed” via lung imaging.

Up until now, they had been documenting cases using a more sophisticated laboratory test.

Health officials said they looked into past suspected cases and revised their diagnoses.

China had been praised by the WHO for its transparent handling of the outbreak, in contrast to the way it concealed the extent of the deadly SARS virus epidemic in 2002-2003.

But it has faced continued scepticism among the global public, with fears that there may be similarities to the way it dealt with SARS.

Authorities in Hubei have been accused of concealing the gravity of the outbreak.

Criticism intensified after the death of a doctor who had tried to raise the alarm about the outbreak in December, but was silenced by authorities.

Analysts said Hubei’s new counting methodology might be a legitimate attempt to be more transparent, but the immediate impact was to sow more distrust.

“Oddly, this now is a moment of greater transparency,” Sam Crane, political science professor at Williams College in Massachusetts, told AFP.

“It is not clear if the problem up to now, on this issue, was lack of transparency or simply bad medical practice,” Crane said.

Yun Jiang, a China researcher at Australian National University, said the new methodology may be a “practical measure” because Hubei has a shortage of laboratory testing kits.