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    China Concealed Extent of Virus Outbreak, U.S. Intelligence Says

    (Bloomberg) -- China has concealed the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in its country, under-reporting both total cases and deaths it’s suffered from the disease, the U.S. intelligence community concluded in a classified report to the White House, according to three U.S. officials.The officials asked not to be identified because the report is secret, and they declined to detail its contents. But the thrust, they said, is that China’s public reporting on cases and deaths is intentionally incomplete. Two of the officials said the report concludes that China’s numbers are fake.The report was received by the White House last week, one of the officials said.The outbreak began in China’s Hubei province in late 2019, but the country has publicly reported only about 82,000 cases and 3,300 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. That compares to more than 189,000 cases and more than 4,000 deaths in the U.S., which has the largest publicly reported outbreak in the world.U.S. President Donald Trump said Wednesday that China’s reported virus data appear to be on the “light side” but that he hadn’t received an intelligence report saying the country had concealed the extent of its outbreak.“Their numbers seem to be a little bit on the light side, and I’m being nice when I say that,” he said at a daily coronavirus briefing at the White House.Trump added that the U.S. and China were in constant communication and that Beijing would spend $250 billion to purchase American products. “We’d like to keep it, they’d like to keep it” he said of the U.S.-China trade deal.Communications staff at the White House and the Chinese embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.‘More Forthcoming’“The reality is that we could have been better off if China had been more forthcoming,” Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday on CNN. “What appears evident now is that long before the world learned in December that China was dealing with this, and maybe as much as a month earlier than that, that the outbreak was real in China.While China eventually imposed a strict lockdown beyond those of less autocratic nations, there has been considerable skepticism toward China’s reported numbers, both outside and within the country. The Chinese government has repeatedly revised its methodology for counting cases, for weeks excluding people without symptoms entirely, and only on Tuesday added more than 1,500 asymptomatic cases to its total.Stacks of thousands of urns outside funeral homes in Hubei province have driven public doubt in Beijing’s reporting.Republican lawmakers in the U.S. have been particularly harsh about China’s role in the outbreak. Enhancing Beijing’s role in the pandemic could be politically helpful to Trump, who has sought to shift blame for the U.S. outbreak away from his administration’s delays in achieving widespread testing for the virus and mobilizing greater production of supplies such as face masks and hospital ventilators.“The claim that the United States has more coronavirus deaths than China is false,” Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, said in a statement after Bloomberg News published its report. “Without commenting on any classified information, this much is painfully obvious: The Chinese Communist Party has lied, is lying, and will continue to lie about coronavirus to protect the regime.”Deborah Birx, the State Department immunologist advising the White House on its response to the outbreak, said Tuesday that China’s public reporting influenced assumptions elsewhere in the world about the nature of the virus.“The medical community made -- interpreted the Chinese data as: This was serious, but smaller than anyone expected,” she said at a news conference on Tuesday. “Because I think probably we were missing a significant amount of the data, now that what we see happened to Italy and see what happened to Spain.”Suspect ReportingThe U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion is an attempt to divert attention from surging deaths in the U.S. and other Western countries, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of China’s state-run Global Times, said on his account on Chinese social media platform Weibo.There was no way for serious data faking to occur in today’s China, especially for an incident that has drawn such widespread attention, Hu said. He said China managed to curtail the death toll in Hubei, the province where the virus first emerged late last year, by sending medical workers and equipment there from other parts of the country.“To fake the casualty data, which departments will be deployed? Who will implement the plan?,” Hu said. “It will involve many different departments in many places to get the total numbers. If one of them is faking once, they have to fake it all the time. The risk of screwing up could be very high.”China isn’t the only country with suspect public reporting. Western officials have pointed to Iran, Russia, Indonesia and especially North Korea, which has not reported a single case of the disease, as probable under-counts. Others including Saudi Arabia and Egypt may also be playing down their numbers.U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has publicly urged China and other nations to be transparent about their outbreaks. He has repeatedly accused China of covering up the extent of the problem and being slow to share information, especially in the weeks after the virus first emerged, and blocking offers of help from American experts.“This data set matters,” he said at a news conference in Washington on Tuesday. The development of medical therapies and public-health measures to combat the virus “so that we can save lives depends on the ability to have confidence and information about what has actually transpired,” he said.“I would urge every nation: Do your best to collect the data. Do your best to share that information,” he said. “We’re doing that.”(Updates with Trump comments from fifth paragraph)For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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    We May Be Underestimating the Coronavirus Death Toll

    (Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Covid-19 epidemic is a fight with an invisible enemy. What’s also worrying is that we just don’t know how bad the disease really is.Many people wonder whether we’re overestimating its deadliness, since countries find it impossible to test those with few or no symptoms. The case fatality rate is the ratio of coronavirus deaths to the number of infected patients. If we underestimate the latter, the detected fatality rate will look much higher than the real one. That’s why there’s such huge interest in scientific models that suggest the overall infection rate is far in excess of the official numbers. If that were true, the mortality rate across the population would fall to less worrying levels.However, Italy’s experience shows that countries may also be underestimating the other side of the ratio: the death toll. As hospitals become overcrowded, patients are being asked to stay at home until they display the most serious symptoms. Many will die in their houses or nursing homes and may not even be counted as Covid-19 cases unless they’re tested post-mortem.Last week, two researchers from northern Italy made this point forcefully when looking at Nembro, a small town near Bergamo that has been very severely hit by the outbreak. Writing in Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera they found there had been 158 deaths in the town in 2020 so far, as opposed to 35 on average in the previous five years. They noted that Nembro had only counted 31 deaths from Covid-19, which looks like an underestimate.In other towns nearby, including Bergamo itself, the trend seemed identical. The researchers made the point that the only reliable indicator in the end will be “excess deaths” — namely, how many more people have died in total compared to a “normal” year.The statistical advantage of “excess deaths” is that they give you a fuller picture of the human cost of the pandemic. The number of people who die of Covid-19 is a significant part, but not all of it. There will also be people who suffer from other illnesses and who aren’t treated properly because hospitals are overcrowded, intensive care units full and ambulances take longer to arrive. Conversely, there will also be fewer deaths from, say, road accidents, because of the draconian restrictions some countries have chosen to impose. All of this will be captured in this one indicator.There are signs that excess deaths are climbing in Italy, not just locally but nationally too. Italy monitors the number of deaths of those older than 65 in 19 large cities, including Milan and Rome. In the week between March 8 and March 14, this figure (scaled by the total number of residents) was significantly higher than in the past for all the groups above 65, and especially for those between 75 and 84.And that week was still far from the peak of the epidemic, which Italy may only be approaching now. Some cities, including Bergamo, aren’t included in this survey. The human cost of the crisis will become inevitably larger as statisticians collect ever more reliable data.Of course, this is only one side of the story. There are “hidden deaths” but there are also “hidden carriers,” making the fatality rate very hard to estimate. It’s reasonable to believe that Covid-19 is less lethal than the crude statistics suggest.At the moment, Italy has about 12,500 counted deceased, out of slightly more than 105,000 confirmed infections. The fatality rate stands at 11.7%. By contrast, Germany’s number of deaths can still be counted in the hundreds, meaning its mortality rate is 1%. The global estimate from the World Health Organization is 3.4%, and even that is probably an exaggeration.However, absolute figures matter here too. That more people survive doesn’t subtract from the tragedy of those who die — especially if the spike in deaths in Nembro is representative of what’s happening elsewhere. If Italy is any guide, other countries should not underestimate the human toll of Covid-19.This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.Ferdinando Giugliano writes columns on European economics for Bloomberg Opinion. He is also an economics columnist for La Repubblica and was a member of the editorial board of the Financial Times.For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinionSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.