Coronavirus Epidemic Underestimated?

By Simone Gao
Simone Gao
Simone Gao
February 10, 2020 Updated: March 18, 2020

Narration: One month into the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak,

Mr. Lin: If you look in the Chinese media on the CCTV, you’ll still see maybe 99% of the reports regarding the outbreak, which is emphasizing how much effort the government is already doing.

Ms. Gao: So what’s your assessment of the situation?

Mr. Lin: I think the situation is a lot worse than they realized,

Narration: Wuhan has a Maximum Security Laboratory level 4 lab that could handle the coronavirus, but are such labs really safe?

Ms. Gao: According to you, the nature magazine, SARS virus has been leaked from the Beijing lab multiple times. What does that tell you?

Mr. Trevan: To me it would be indicative that there’s a systemic problem there.

Title: Coronavirus Epidemic Underestimated?

Host: Welcome to Zooming In, I’m Simone Gao. The Wuhan coronavirus that has spread consternation around the world over the last few weeks has now killed more people in China than the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003. That is, according to the Chinese official record. As the coronavirus reaches 25 countries around the world, and a substantial amount of non-official reports surface from China, the Chinese regime is under scrutiny as to whether it is attempting to distort the true nature of the epidemic. How serious is it after all? Could it evolve into a pandemic? Why has China allowed few outside experts in to study the epidemic? How has the US responded to this global public health emergency? And what impact will it have on the global economy at large? We explore these questions in today’s episode of Zooming In.

Narration: Since the coronavirus was first detected in the central city of Wuhan late December 2019, the Chinese CDC claimed it has killed 425 people, with over 20,400 confirmed infections nationwide.

The international health authorities have been largely praising the Chinese authorities for being more transparent in handling the epidemic than they were during the SARS outbreak. But social media and media outside China suggest otherwise.

It is reported by BBC that the Chinese government silenced doctors and medical technicians who posted the Coronavirus discovery in early Jan. They played down the dangers to the public, leaving the city’s 11 million residents unaware of the need to protect themselves.

By the time the authorities were galvanized into action on Jan 20, the disease had grown into a formidable threat.

On Jan 23, the government placed Wuhan on total travel lockdown, leaving 6-7 million people, including thousands of foreigners, stranded in a city where the virus is raging and hospitals are overflowing. 5 million people had already left Wu Han before the travel ban. Now Hangzhou, another epicenter with a population of 9 million is also locked down. All of China has implemented travel restrictions of some form or another as of today.

Host: While scientists debate whether the travel restrictions are going to be effective since so many infected people have left Wuhan and China,  Chinese authorities have successfully crafted a narrative that praises the government’s resolve and ability to conquer the epidemic .

Narration: On Jan 24, a day after the Wuhan lockdown, China’s state-run media CCTV gave overwhelming coverage to the arrival of 450 the people’s liberation army medical staff who were deployed to the epicenter of the outbreak.

According to the Ministry of National Defense, the personnel were all top specialists, including those who fought against SARS or Ebola.

Wuhan reportedly received a massive delivery of 14,000 hazmat suits, 110,000 pairs of gloves as well as masks and goggles.

Any results from these efforts, however, are difficult to detect. Social media is filled with clips of packed hospitals, corpses lying in hospital lobbies, and Overworked medical staff making desperate pleas online for more medical supplies.

In one quickly deleted video that was posted to Chinese social media site Weibo, independent reporter Fang Bin filmed 8 corpses transported into a van within 5 minutes.

Funeral home workers in Wuhan told the Epoch Times that they had been working 24/7 to cremate bodies.

In another post, one nurse claimed at least 90,000 people had been infected – a figure substantially greater than the officially reported number.

Host: An underlying question for these horrible scenes is: just how big is this epidemic? And do the numbers from the Chinese CDC reflect reality? We have seen some troubling reports.

Narration: The coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan on December 1.

However, according to Reuters, testing kits for the disease were not distributed to some of Wuhan’s hospitals until about Jan. 20. Before then, samples had to be sent to a laboratory in Beijing for testing, a process that took three to five days to get results.

During that gap, hospitals in the city reduced the number of people under medical observation from 739 to just 82, according to data compiled by Reuters from Wuhan health authorities, and no new cases were reported inside China.

On Jan 27, the Epoch Times reported that in Wuhan, diagnostic kits are only provided to certain “qualifying hospitals” and in very limited quantities. Medical personnel at these hospitals have said that the number of kits they are supplied is less than 10 percent of what they need to test patients.

Host: By controlling the number of available diagnostic kits, China’s CDC is able to put an upper limit on the number of confirmed cases reported daily. How big is the epidemic after all? Chinese and American trained microbiologist Lin Xiaoxu, who was also the lab director of the viral disease branch at Walter Reed Army institute of research told me this.

Mr. Lin: So the true situation is always a lot more serious than what the government presented to the world regardless of whether it’s the number of severe patients or the death number and also suspected cases. In the United States we call it PUI (patient under investigation). So all of these numbers, if you time 10 times the official data, it may be closer to reality.

Bumper: Coming up, has the U.S. been responding adequately?

Part 2: U.S. Response – A Political Embarrassment For The Chinese Regime?

Narration: On January 30, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global public health emergency. The declaration has only been used five times since it was created in 2005.

So far the Wuhan coronavirus has spread from China to over 20 countries, including the United States, France, Japan, Vietnam, and Philippine.

On February 3, a death in Hong Kong marked the second fatality outside mainland China.

Last weekend, US health authorities confirmed the eighth case of coronavirus in the US. The virus was detected in a student from the University of Massachusetts who recently traveled to Wuhan.

On January 29, a plane arrived at March Air Reserve Base, a military base in Southern California, after being flown from Wuhan, carrying 195 U.S. citizens who had been evacuated from the Chinese city.

Most were State Department officials and their families, although some private citizens were included. US health officials said these passengers would be put in quarantine for 14 days.

On the 31st, the Trump administration announced that US citizens who have traveled within the past two weeks to Hubei province—whose capital city is Wuhan—will also be subject to a mandatory quarantine of up to 14 days.

In addition, the Trump administration issued an executive order to ban all foreign nationals who had traveled to China over the past two weeks from entering the US.

On February 2, a second plane was reportedly on its way to Wuhan, with the mission to bring back to the United States U.S. citizens wishing to leave the city.

The decision came after the CDC warned that health officials were prepared for the possibility that the outbreak could become a pandemic.

Earlier on Monday (Feb 3), Beijing accused the US of fueling panic over the disease with travel restrictions and evacuations.

A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman even blasted the US for doing nothing to help China combat the crisis.

Contrary to her narrative, health secretary Alex Azar had revealed last week that the US had offered to send a team of health experts to China several times, which the Chinese government had rejected until February 2, when they finally accepted the offer.

Host: The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson’s hostile remarks, while directed toward the US, were an attempt to avoid political embarrassment, another display of the government’s incompetence and habitual dishonesty in reacting to a public health emergency. This mentality is precisely what allowed the disease to gain a tenacious hold. I interviewed Tim Trevan, founder of CHROME Biosafety and Biosecurity Consulting. He was quoted in a 2017 Nature article, where he alluded that the top-down/hierarchical nature of the Chinese institutions might be the root of the problem.

Mr. Trevan: My question was more whether the culture that exists in Chinese government structures and in organizations is structured in a way that can learn to adapt very quickly when the rules don’t work. So in complex adaptive systems, you get things called emergent properties. These are things that you cannot forecast.

And so there you have to be able to react to the unexpected very quickly. This means that you need to organize to be able to learn quickly, which means that even the most junior person has to be able to question the decisions and knowledge of the most senior person. And it means that the most senior people have to respect and listen to all the junior people too. So that was the concern that I was stating this, that I think in these sorts of labs, not just in China, but in countries around the world, we need to get a change in management attitude from one of very hierarchical structures where the bosses say this is the only way to do it, to ones where the people doing the work understand how they have to do it safely. And when, when a new knowledge appears, they’re able then to change the system themselves to keep it safe.

Ms. Gao: According to you, the nature magazine, um, SARS virus has been leaked from the Beijing lab multiple times. What does that tell you?

Mr. Trevan: Well, to me that if, if you have a major, um, unintended release of a dangerous pathogen like that several times within the same organization, over a short span of time, to me it would be indicative that there’s a systemic problem there. There’s a problem with the system of management and of risk management in that facility. And so I would want to go in there if I were responsible for trying to prevent these, these, future releases of the, the virus, uh, I’d want to go in there and study what were the core, what were the underlying causes for why people made the decisions, which led to the actions which led to the release. What were the management structures that made them think that that was the right thing to do that way. So, as I say, it becomes an issue of how you learn about your organization and how you learn about the way you do things.

Narration: Tim also shared his advice on how the situation should be assessed moving forward.

Ms. Gao: When can medical authorities tell which direction this is gonna go?

Mr. Trevan: Well the first indications will be once we understand the full course of the disease, say it takes three weeks from infection to full recovery or say it takes 10 days from initial infection to when you’re no longer infectious, when you no longer can pass on the disease to someone else. If we find that over a, say a one week or two week period, the number of people who are progressing from initial infection out of the period from which they’re infectious starts exceeding the number of new cases, then we can believe that we’ve got it under control. Or at least we’re going in the right direction. So what we’ll definitely be looking for is what is the rate of new cases. If the rate of new cases such that continues to go up geometrically, then our control measures not working. If it starts to plateau or, or slow down, then we can have some faith that our control measures are working.

Host: Let’s hear what Dr. Lin Xiaoxu has to say about this.

Mr. Lin: I think even the Chinese scientists probably have a lot of data in their hands, but they are not allowed to be released to the public. So that’s why you see even some of the medical situation, the medical data collected is only released on the scientific report even after the government allowed the situation to be publicized.

Mr. Lin: So some of the information definitely needed to be released earlier to the world. And regarding the different symptoms that people can experience from this virus and mutations that may have occurred and whether the second generation mutations already happened. And would it be more transmissible? Would it be more pathogenic? This information the Chinese doctors will have the first hand information because they are treating so many patients every day, right? So they will be able to see if the virus has more than deadly outcomes. And so I think the Chinese government needs to loosen up their control, loosen their control in the media and also control over the medical situation. The Chinese government should no longer treat public health crisis as a state secret, (but rather as) a fundamental issue. If they always treat it as a state secret, so many true situations will be covered up.

Bumper: Coming up, as China returns from the Lunar New Year break, how will the coronavirus affect the economy at large?

Part 3: Coronavirus Triggers Global Economic Fears

Narration: China returned from its extended Lunar New Year holiday to steep economic losses.

As the Shanghai stock exchange reopened on Feb 3, China’s benchmark stock index dipped 9% on the first day of trading, its worst opening in almost 13 years.

The Chinese yuan plunged against most of its major currency rivals.

The People’s Bank of China (PBoC) recently announced that it would inject $174 billion into the economy to protect it from the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

The size of the central bank injection, along with other measures, signals policymakers’ fear of a market crash.

Analysts say the impact of the virus – which has left major cities in full or partial lockdown – could harm growth if it lasts for a prolonged period.

China’s travel and tourism sectors have already taken a hit over an unusually quiet Spring Festival break, while cinemas were forced to close to try to contain the virus.

Meanwhile, numerous factories have suspended production while companies have instructed employees to work from home.

Foxconn, Toyota, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Tesla and Volkswagen are just a few of the corporate giants to have paused operations or shuttered outlets across China.

On February 4, Hyundai, the world’s fifth-largest automaker, said that it was temporarily stopping production lines at its factories in South Korea due to shortage of Chinese parts.

The Hyundai shutdown could portend much more serious disruptions in the complex automobile supply chains.

Global oil prices began to collapse as demand from China shrank. China consumes 13 of every 100 barrels of oil the world produces. As daily Chinese oil demand dropped 20 percent because of diminished transportation and manufacturing, repercussions are felt by the entire oil industry.

Experts say, once the Wuhan coronavirus subsides, it could take as long as 19 months for multiple industries to recover. It is estimated that the global economy will take a hit of at least $40 to $60 billion.

Host: Just how deep will the wounds be on China’s economy? Economist and China expert Frank Qin told me this.

Frank Qin: The impact of the Wuhan coronavirus on the Chinese economy will be greater than in 2003. In 2003, the Chinese economy was on the rise, China was becoming the world’s factory and “Made In China” was coming into being. E-commerce in China was fledgling. Now, the Chinese economy is having difficulties. You have the U.S.-China trade war, and a Chinese economic dynamic in which the state flourishes but individuals do not.

Investment of private enterprises has fallen sharply in recent years, and the supply chain has also shifted. All these elements factored together will create a far-reaching impact on the Chinese economy.

The extent to which the epidemic affects the economy depends on a couple of things:

The first is the duration of the epidemic. Liang Zhuowei, Dean of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong stated in a January 27 report that he believes the Wuhan epidemic will peak in April and May, and will start to subside in June and July. This means a negative impact on the economy will exist for the first and second quarters. It will continue through May and June and will start to recover after June.

Second, will this evolve into a nationwide epidemic? At present, it is suspected that the number of people who are infected and the death toll in China are dozens of times higher than officially announced. There are already 36 cities being locked down or partially locked down. 5 million people fled Wuhan before the lockdown on Jan. 22. Their primary destinations were Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Now the Chinese Communist Party faces a dilemma between employment and epidemic control. For economic reasons it cannot extend the Chinese New Year holiday after February 10th. But this also means the epidemic in these large cities will get worse after the holiday is over when people start to move around. Therefore, I predict that by April to May, large cities and in fact most cities in the country will be forced to lock down or partially lock down.  This will inevitably affect the economy, hurt consumption and encourage migration of the supply chain.

How big of an impact will it be?  Reuters reported that Standard & Poor predicted China’s GDP would dip 1.2% for the entire year. Other organizations have made similar forecasts. But I believe China’s GDP will drop down further. I believe the growth rate for the first quarter will only be 2% or lower. The subsequent growth will be even smaller. The decrease in growth for the entire year will be about 1.5%. Considering that last year China largely faked its GDP numbers, I would say the impact of the outbreak on China’s economy will be more serious than what the outside world imagined.

Host: And when China is hurt, the world bleeds. Overwhelming concerns over the state of the global economy may prove one thing: The international commerce and financial markets have become far more reliant on China than people realize. And with a greatly underestimated number of people infected with the coronavirus, people do not know what to expect. But one thing is for sure, if the epidemic prolongs, China will be forced to disengage with the rest of the world during a period when it needs Western investment the most. Stay tuned for the truth about the coronavirus epidemic in China. Thanks for watching Zooming In. I’m Simone Gao. See you next time.

Follow Simone on Twitter: @ZoomingIn_NTD

Simone Gao