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Though Chinese officials are updating the number of those infected or killed by Wuhan coronavirus regularly, many have questioned the accuracy of the statistics coming from the Communist government. Some netizens have taken to analyzing screenshots allegedly from China's biggest tech and media conglomerate Tencent, which may have temporarily displayed the total cases and death rate as much higher than official reports suggest.
Tencent's current numbers on its "Epidemic Situation Tracker" site match Chinese government tallies reported elsewhere; if the screenshots are not doctored, they were taken during a brief moment before Tencent replaced the numbers with government ones. A spokesperson for Tencent said this site aggregates and reports health information from China’ s National Health Commission and other health authorties, and said the screenshots that differ from official statistics are doctored, according to the Hong Kong English news site Dimsum Daily.
One of the widely-shared screenshots suggests a death tally 80 times greater than the official report. That screen grab from Saturday listed the death toll as 24,589, vastly higher than the 304 that were officially reported at the time. Total cases were also briefly displayed at 154,023, much higher than the officially reported 14,446.
How Trustworthy Is This Information?
According to the latest official report, 563 people have died in China from the newly identified virus as of Wednesday, 73 of whom died on Wednesday, according to Aljazeera. More than 3,500 newly confirmed cases in China were reported on Wednesday, bringing the official total to 28,018.
While the Communist Chinese government has been frequently criticized for failing to provide transparent information in the past, no news outlet has managed to independently verify if the screenshots were taken from the Tencent website. It is also unclear whether they were altered, let alone how or why they were posted, if indeed they were.
This isn't the first time China's openness about a health crisis has been called into question. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, the US State Department used its influence to "increase transparency and response," from China, according to a 2004 report from the Government Accountability Office.
Furthermore, the report criticized China for its "poor communication within the country, with Hong Kong and Taiwan, and with WHO," which "obscured the severity of the outbreak during its initial stages."
Recently the WHO has supported China's efforts to release information about this new virus.
"We've seen no obvious lack of transparency" from China, Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program Dr. Michael Ryan told reporters Wednesday, according to Newsweek. "Before we start pointing the finger at China, we need to recognize there are genuine sensitivities around sharing data around new diseases."
On the other hand, the mayor of Wuhan, Zhou Xianwang, said he must have approval from the central government to release disease information, which has contributed to a lack of transparency, as reported last week by the Wall Street Journal.
"As a local government official, after I get this kind of information I still have to wait for authorization before I can release it," he said during a news broadcast.
China seems determined to improve its record of transparency this time, and US health officials have not registered much criticism for the Chinese response to Wuhan coronavirus. HHS Secretary Alex Azar even commended China last week for gene-sequencing the virus rapidly. This has made it possible for the CDC to develop a diagnostic test, and may enable a vaccine to be developed more quickly, according to Politico.
However, Azar also expressed some frustrations. Particularly he said the US twice offered to send CDC experts to China, and neither offer was accepted. US officials have also complained they never received scientific data from China showing the virus could spread from human to human.
But some health experts have acknowledged that a lack of quality information in the initial stages of a disease outbreak may be inevitable.
"To some degree in the early days of any kind of outbreak like this, there is a fog of war where we just have incomplete information, and it takes time for the information to really unfold," Gerald Parker, associate dean for Global One Health at Texas A&M, told Politico.
What We Know About Wuhan Coronavirus (2019-nCoV)
Wuhan coronavirus is a newly identified and named type of single-stranded, positive-sense RNA coronavirus, according to MedicineNet medical author Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD. He said the virus initially spread in an animal species (currently unidentified) and then jumped to humans where it is transferred person to person. The 2019 novel coronavirus is related to SARS and MERS coronaviruses.
There is currently no specific antiviral drug or vaccine to treat infected individuals. Treatment is supportive in nature, and it may be necessary for a medical professional to administer treatments in a hospital. Complications may include:
People may prevent or lower the risk of this viral infection, Dr. Davis writes, with good hygiene, avoiding contact with infected people, not going into an outbreak area, and by leaving an outbreak zone.