China virus epicentre Wuhan raises death toll 50%

China’s coronavirus ground-zero city of Wuhan on Friday admitted missteps in tallying its death toll, and abruptly raised the count by 50 percent following growing world doubts about Chinese transparency.

The United States has led the charge in questioning China’s handling of the pandemic and how much information it has really shared with the international community since the virus emerged late last year.

Authorities in Wuhan initially tried to cover up the outbreak, punishing doctors who had raised the alarm online in December, and there have been questions about the government’s recording of infections as it repeatedly changed its counting criteria at the peak of the outbreak.

Wuhan’s epidemic control headquarters said in a social media posting on Friday that it had added 1,290 deaths to the tally in Wuhan, which has suffered the vast majority of China’s fatalities from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

That brings the total number of deaths in the city to 3,869. But the city government only added 325 cases, raising the city’s total number of infections to 50,333.

The change also pushes the nationwide death toll up by nearly 39 percent to 4,632, based on official national data released earlier on Friday.

The official toll in the country of 1.4 billion people, however, remains well below the number of fatalities in much smaller countries such as Italy and Spain.

China has come under increasing pressure over the coronavirus pandemic from Western powers, with Washington raising doubts about Chinese transparency and probing whether the virus actually originated in a Wuhan laboratory.

“We’ll have to ask the hard questions about how it came about and how it couldn’t have been stopped earlier,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Thursday.

French President Emmanuel Macron told the Financial Times it would be “naive” to think China had handled the pandemic well, adding: “There are clearly things that have happened that we don’t know about.”

Chinese scientists have said the virus emerged from a Wuhan food market whose merchandise reportedly included exotic wild animals sold for human consumption.

Data flip-flops

State-run nationalistic tabloid Global Times defended the revision in an editorial, saying it was a “responsible correction” based on “facts”.

“Recently, the public opinion sphere alleged the concealment of death tolls by the authorities, and some in the West spared no effort in hyping this speculation,” the editorial said.

“It is hoped the veracity of the data can put all controversy surrounding it to rest.”

Wuhan cited several reasons for the missed cases, including the fact that the city’s medical staff were overwhelmed in the early days as infections climbed, leading to “late reporting, omissions or mis-reporting”.

It also cited insufficient testing and treatment facilities, and said some patients died at home and thus their deaths were not properly reported.

Health authorities in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, have previously flip-flopped on their figures.

Officials abruptly added nearly 15,000 cases to their count in mid-February after they started counting patients who were diagnosed through lung imaging, in addition to those who undergo lab tests.

Later, the National Health Commission removed 108 deaths from the toll after discovering that some fatalities were counted twice in Hubei.

Authorities changed their methodology again in late February as they stopped adding cases through lung imaging.

More recently, China started counting asymptomatic cases following public concern over people who have tested positive but are not showing symptoms.

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