When the father of Fan Deng, a prominent former anchor of Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, started dozing off more frequently during the day, the family didn’t worry.
This wasn’t uncommon, after all, for someone in their 80s. The man’s mind was clear and his appetite was as good as ever. But when the family used a pulse oximeter out of caution, they found his blood oxygen level dangerously low at 88 percent, 4 percent below the threshold requiring medical attention. By the time the family got him to the hospital, his blood oxygen levels had plunged to the 60s.
Only after doing a CT scan at the hospital did the family realize the gravity of the situation: His lungs appeared mostly white. Healthy lungs, by contrast, would normally appear as dark regions.
He died after three nights at the hospital.
Fan shared this account on Chinese social media, which has been flooded with similar stories by family and friends of victims who allegedly presented the same symptoms in their lungs.
“White lung,” once a little-known phrase, has been a top trending word on Chinese social media amid an expansive COVID outbreak sweeping China, before censors swooped in to scrub discussion of the phenomenon. The white patches indicate areas of inflammation, which causes excessive fluid accumulation in the lungs.
The phenomenon has sparked fears that the virus has mutated or that earlier strains of COVID are driving the latest outbreak. The Chinese regime, which has been sharply criticized by the international community for refusing to share data on the outbreak, insists that Omicron is behind the surge, that no new variants have emerged, and no earlier strains have reemerged.
The elderly weren’t the only group who reportedly presented with white lung syndrome. Recent Chinese media reports and social media posts have described patients from as young as 12 years old to some in their 30s.
The death rate is around 40 percent for those with serious cases of a white lung; and even for people who do recover, fibrous scars will likely remain, Zhang Li, deputy director of neurosurgery at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Shanghai, told state-run media.
He and multiple other top Chinese experts said that white lung patients—who by their definition have around three-quarters of their lungs showing as white on a CT scan—make up only a small portion of COVID patients.
“All serious pneumonia will cause white lungs,” said Zhang Wenhong, director of the infectious diseases department at Huashan Hospital of Fudan University as well as its Chinese Communist Party Party secretary, in an op-ed for Chinese media outlet Caixin.
“Even though the proportion of ‘white lung’ patients is not high, because of the significant cardinal number, the number of ‘white lung’ cases we observe clinically will increase.”
Asked whether Omicron can lead to the syndrome, China’s top health authority, the National Health Commission, didn’t directly answer the question but stressed that white lung has nothing to do with the original COVID variants or inoculation by Chinese vaccines. Rather, many pathogens can lead to such inflammation of the lungs, and “a considerable number” of the patients can return back to health, an official with the commission said at a press conference last week.
The official statements, though, haven’t reassured many Chinese.
An unnamed doctor donning a medical plastic shield over his surgical mask said he diagnosed 120 COVID patients over a span of eight hours, among which, a third were seriously ill and up to 20, around 16 percent, had white lung symptoms.
“The white lungs are not just seen in the elderly,” he said in a video shared on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo, which displays a document listing details of patients affected.
“There are people in their 20s, 40s, and 60s. I’m feeling a little panicky.”
The symptoms seem closely related to acute respiratory distress syndrome, a serious lung condition where fluid builds up in the lung’s air sacs, thus preventing oxygen from getting to one’s organs, according to Dong Yuhong, a medical doctor on infectious disease and former senior medical expert at the Swiss antiviral drug maker Novartis.
Although the lack of data from China hinders analysts from arriving at a clearer picture.
“The issue is that we simply just couldn’t trust the numbers from China,” said Dong, also an Epoch Times contributor. “The Party’s priority is always their power, but not the value of human lives, not the health of Chinese people.”
The lack of accurate information about the virus strains circulating in China, Dong said, means the international community has been left in the dark as to whether the virus has mutated.
Anecdotes From the Ground
Like the former CCTV anchor’s father, some of these patients exhibited little outward signs such as fever or coughing which is more typical in a COVID infection. Doctors describe this as “silent hypoxia”: a condition where oxygen in the body is alarmingly low.
In recent interviews, people from multiple areas across China said they have seen such cases in those close to them. Most of the interviewees requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.
A blogger in the southwestern megacity of Chongqing mentioned a former schoolmate who developed white lung symptoms while recovering from a mild COVID infection.
“The doctor said it would have been dangerous had they waited a bit longer,” he told The Epoch Times.
Zhang, the Shanghai-based infectious disease expert, said the prime window for treating “serious pneumonia cases” is 72 hours. But for many, this is not possible due to the extreme difficulty in obtaining medical care. Hospitals and health clinics across China have been overwhelmed in the past weeks since the surge in cases.
A white lung patient from Suzhou, a city near Shanghai, said he couldn’t get a hospital placement after being diagnosed with double lung inflammation and viral pneumonia.
“There was no bed,” he told The Epoch Times.
A man from Wuhan, China’s first virus hotspot in 2020, is sick with the virus, along with his wife and mother. His mother fared the worst and was barely eating. After a round of visits to major hospitals that are all packed with the infected, they got her into a small local hospital, where she was given anti-inflammatory drugs for two days.
“The examination shows that she has a lung infection. The doctor didn’t say much, but my hunch is that it’s also a ‘white lung,’” he told The Epoch Times on Dec. 30, 2022.
“Every day, there are deaths in my residential compound, nonstop,” he said, adding that most of them are seniors. “Around me, if one person gets sick in a household, all the rest will become infected. There’s no one spared.” He added that his friend lost his mother two days after chest imaging detected a white lung.
For now, his solution is using immune globulin to treat certain infections, a treatment that has seen its price soar by eightfold in some areas, after some people online credited it for helping to relieve COVID. He has managed to get 10 packs through his connections.
It’s unclear how many such deaths are attributed to COVID. China’s official tally has so far been so low that a leading scientist with the World Health Organization on Jan. 3 called for a “more realistic picture of what is actually going on.”
The regime’s infection numbers, which it has recently stopped publishing on a daily basis, have also drawn widespread skepticism, but health officials have said the infection rate in many large cities has exceeded 50 percent, and may be as high as 80 percent in Beijing. A leaked memo from the National Health Commission revealed that the regime estimated 250 million infections in the first 20 days of December 2022.
A Beijing resident who gave his surname as Wang said he had to book an appointment up to 25 days in advance to cremate his brother, who died three days after being diagnosed with respiratory failure.
He recently visited a friend with white lung symptoms at the hospital and was startled to find a pile of bodies in the hallways.
“They asked me to get out shortly after we started talking, telling me that their wards had to handle the dead. Someone dies there every day,” Wang told The Epoch Times.
“You won’t know anything,” he said. “And they won’t tell you. All they say is there’s lung inflammation.”
Hong Ning and Yi Ru contributed to this report.
This article has been updated with a response from Dong Yuhong.