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Data Leak Suggests China Had Hundreds of Thousands of Coronavirus Cases in 230 Cities

Medical workers in protective suits attend to a patient inside an isolated ward of the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak, in Hubei Province, China, February 16, 2020. (China Daily via Reuters)

This may be the most spectacularly under-discussed story of the pandemic:

A dataset of coronavirus cases and deaths from the military’s National University of Defense Technology, leaked to 100Reporters, offers insight into how Beijing has gathered coronavirus data on its population. The source of the leak, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of sharing Chinese military data, said that the data came from the university. . . .

While not fully comprehensive, the data is incredibly rich: There are more than 640,000 updates of information, covering at least 230 cities—in other words, 640,000 rows purporting to show the number of cases in a specific location at the time the data was gathered. Each update includes the latitude, longitude, and “confirmed” number of cases at the location, for dates ranging from early February to late April.

It is worth noting that each of the 640,000 updates counts a number of cases, and that number may be more than one: “The dataset reports one case of coronavirus in a KFC in the eastern city of Zhenjiang on March 14, for example, while a church in the northeastern provincial capital of Harbin saw two cases on March 17.”

There are many reasons to doubt China’s official numbers. The official count of cases hit 84,000 at the beginning of March and has barely risen at all since then. Since March 1, the official data indicates the country — with almost 1.4 billion people — has had only one day with more than 300 new cases. China’s official figures show just two deaths since April 17. In mid-April, the city of Wuhan revised its number of coronavirus deaths from 2,579 to 3,869 — a statistically improbable increase of exactly 50 percent. If China’s numbers are accurate, then tiny Peru — a country with about 2 percent of China’s population — has more cases since the start of the pandemic.

The contention that a country with almost 1.4 billion people, with many living in close quarters in crowded cities with sanitary conditions that are less than ideal, simply brought its number of new cases and deaths down to nearly zero overnight is simply not plausible.

What are China’s real numbers? If each of the updates is a report of one case, the country had 640,000 cases; if the average of each update is 2 cases, it’s about 1.28 million cases; if the average of each update is 3 cases, it’s 1.92 million cases. Keep in mind, this is in 230 cities — not the entire country, but a good chunk of it.

This dataset from 100Reporters suggests China had at least 640,000 to 2 million cases in 230 cities in a three-month period, a range which feels a lot more plausible than the official numbers, if not an absolutely complete count.

A sum of 640,000 by itself would be the second-highest number of total cases in the world, behind the United States and nearly twice as many as Russia’s 308,000. (For what it’s worth, China’s official numbers indicated the country had 17,000 cases by early February.)

China is the furthest along in this pandemic, and ideally, the rest of the world would be able to look at their experiences to know what to expect as the outbreak progresses. But the top priority of the Chinese government is to look masterly and in control at all times, leaving the rest of the world guessing at just how bad things are in that country.

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