White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx indicated on Tuesday that any lack of preparation from U.S. officials on dealing with the coronavirus outbreak happened because we were likely “missing a significant amount of the data” from China.
“When you talk about could we have known something different, you know, I think all of us, I was overseas when this happened in Africa and I think when you look at the China data originally, and you said, there’s 80 million people, or 20 million people in Wuhan and 80 million people in Hubei, and they come up with the number of 50,000, you start thinking of this more like SARS than you do this kind of global pandemic,” Birx said.
Birx said that in “frank” terms that when she looked at the data from China during the first days of the outbreak that she did not think that it would be a global pandemic because of how densely populated the outbreak area was compared to the number of cases that China reported.
“So, I think the medical community interpreted the Chinese data as this was serious, but smaller than anyone expected because I think probably we were missing a significant amount of the data” from China, Birx continued, adding that U.S. officials now have a much better idea of the disease now that they have seen happen Italy and Spain.
Pandemic expert Dr. Deborah Birx says U.S. officials initially responded to the coronavirus outbreak the way that they did because they thought it was going to be "more like SARS" and not a "global pandemic" *BECAUSE* "we were missing a significant amount of the data" from China pic.twitter.com/yFkzqqDBHh
— Ryan Saavedra (@RealSaavedra) April 1, 2020
A Washington Post analysis from last week cautioned against viewing the numbers out of China as being accurate. The Washington Post reported:
An article in the journal Science estimates that 86 percent of Hubei’s cases were undocumented by the time authorities extended the lockdown to Wuhan and other cities on Jan. 23.
It is also likely that officials reported lower numbers of deaths from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Especially once the central government’s propaganda mission to win the “people’s war” against the virus became clear, numbers shifted to achieve that vision. Such shifts would probably be subtle — not hundreds or thousands of hidden deaths, but instead excluding deaths that could be attributed to other types of pneumonia or heart failure, for instance.
Bloomberg News also reported recently this week that pictures of thousands of urns at funeral homes in Wuhan have raised additional questions about the accuracy of numbers that China has reported.
China also has a history of lying about the scale of epidemic outbreaks, which is what happened during the 2002 SARS outbreak.
On April 21, 2003, The New York Times reported that China admitted to under-reporting the total number of SARS cases:
In a rare public admission of failure, if not deception, the Chinese government disclosed today that cases of a dangerous new respiratory disease were many times higher than previously reported, and stripped two top officials of their power. […]
Admitting to the existence of more than 200 previously undisclosed SARS patients in military hospitals, the official, Deputy Health Minister Gao Qiang, said that as of Friday Beijing had 339 confirmed cases of SARS and an additional 402 suspected cases.
Ten days ago, Health Minister Zhang Wenkang said there were only 22 confirmed SARS cases in Beijing. Last Wednesday, the World Health Organization caused a stir here by estimating that there could be as many as 100 to 200 cases.