Blockbuster news from China about COVID-19

Summary: Epidemics are like wars in that truth is the first casualty. I see comment threads in which misinformation makes most readers know less than when they started. Meanwhile, this blockbuster good news from China is lost amidst the chaff.


First, a status report

From WHO’s February 24 situation report.

Outside China, there are 29 nations infected (1 new, 6 since Feb 3). There are 1,374 cases (261 new, 1,221 since February 3). This does not include the 695 infected and then quarantined on the Diamond Princess.

Blockbuster news from China

Here are excerpts from remarks by Tedros Adhanom, Director-General of WHO, at the February 24 media briefing. This is important news – contradicting guesses by the doomsters.

“We’re encouraged by the continued decline in cases in China.. …They found that the epidemic peaked and plateaued between the 23rd of January and the 2nd of February, and has been declining steadily since then.

That is good news (if correct), and not just for China. With no preparation and relatively primitive public health networks (compared to those of developed nations), the epidemic stabilized in roughly four weeks – probably due to China’s fast and large quarantines. That is good news because other nations are relying on quarantines to contain the infection.

Also, this suggests that the doomsters’ predictions that the epidemic would prove uncontrollable in China – sweeping through to its four corners – are wrong. China’s 77 thousand cases sounds like a large number, but it is a small fraction of China’s 1.4 billion people. That is true even if the true number infected is twice as large, or even (implausibly) five times as large.

“They found that the fatality rate is between 2% and 4% in Wuhan, and 0.7% outside Wuhan.”

The fatality rate in the developed nations will certainly be lower than that in China outside Wuhan (medical facilities in Wuhan are overwhelmed), although the estimate of a 0.7% fatality rate might be wrong. Original estimates were over 2% (e.g., here). If proven correct, this is great news.

“They found that for people with mild disease, recovery time is about two weeks, while people with severe or critical disease recover within three to six weeks.”

That is also important news, as the length of time required for the treatment of critical cases determines how quickly an epidemic overloads the hospital facilities of a region.

The Director gives the bottom line about the status of the epidemic: it is not a pandemic, yet.

“The sudden increases of cases in Italy, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Korea are deeply concerning. There’s a lot of speculation about whether these increases mean that this epidemic has now become a pandemic. We understand why people ask that question.

“WHO has already declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern – our highest level of alarm – {on January 30} when there were less than 100 cases outside China, and 8 cases of human-to-human transmission.

“Our decision about whether to use the word “pandemic” to describe an epidemic is based on an ongoing assessment of the geographical spread of the virus, the severity of disease it causes and the impact it has on the whole of society.

“For the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus, and we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or death. Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.”

See the WHO website for details about the meaning of “pandemic” (here and here).

The doomsters spread panic

The doomsters are multiplying faster than those infected with the diesase, spreading misinformation. They use graphs showing rapid growth in the small numbers of infected to make this seem like a major pandemic outside China. It’s not, at least yet.

They make bold statements about COVID-19 not justified by current research, especially comparing it to the flu. Most importantly, they assume developed nations will have the same rates of spread & mortality as China – despite our vastly better medical infrastructure.

Making this much worse is the same dynamic seen in the climate change debate: experts seeking their 15 minutes of fame by making statements (often quite wild) that are outside of the consensus, without mentioning that. In the early stages of the epidemic, there was pushback to this by other experts. Now, as in climate science, the pushback has stopped – encouraging more experts to fuel the hysteria for their own gain.

Update: about the epidemic in China

I strongly recommend reading the Transcript of the Press Conference about the WHO-China Joint Mission on COVID-19, 24 February 2020. Needless to say, it provides ground-level data debunking many of the wild stories circulating.

What next?

Epidemics are like wars in another respect: their outcomes are difficult to predict. But whatever happens, this is – as I said on January 25 – a historical milestone. The combination of a global organization and high tech has allowed preparations during the past 54 days of an unprecedented speed and scale. Without these, by now we might be in the midst of a devastating global pandemic. This is progress.

But as usual, Trump wants to reduce our defenses to anything other than war. In the midst of the Coronavirus epidemic, President Trump proposed cutting funding to the World Health Organization by 53% and to the Pan American Health Organization by 75%. Madness.

It’s easy to follow the coronavirus story

The World Health Organization provides daily information, from highly technical information to news for the general public.

Posts about the coronavirus epidemic.

For More Information

Ideas! For some shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon. Also, see a story about our future: Ultra Violence: Tales from Venus.

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also, see these posts about epidemics…

  1. See the ugly cost of the next big flu pandemic. We can do more to prepare.
  2. Stratfor: The superbugs are coming. We have time to prepare.
  3. Posts debunking the hysteria about the 2009 swine flu in America.
  4. Posts debunking the hysteria about the 2015 ebola epidemic in America.
  5. Important: A vaccine against the fears that make us weak.

Films about scientists responding to global threats

In these films, we see scientists behaving according to their and our highest ideals.

When Worlds Collide (1959) – The world will end. Scientists band together to warn the world and build an ark to carry humanity to another home. It is a great film! The 1933 book by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer is even better than film.

Contagion (2011). – This shows the progress of a pandemic from its start with Patient Zero, through the global devastation, to an eventual victory by the world’s scientists.

When Worlds Collide (1951)
Available at Amazon.
Contagion (2011)
Available at Amazon.


43 thoughts on “Blockbuster news from China about COVID-19”

  1. Meanwhile others are reporting quiet cremations off 1000+ a day, and portable crematoriums being shipped all over the country to park behind hospitals.

    Which is probably more believable than the official Chinese bullshit.

  2. Oh, and FIVE new countries were added to the list yesterday: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman.

      1. Scripio,

        “They were actually added in today’s report:”

        Harry said “FIVE new countries were added to the list yesterday.”

        Four were added today is not exactly confirmation.

        “The middle eastern clusters are more concerning than the east asian ones, for obvious reasons.”

        WHO has been saying that since mid-January. They repeated it when the first cases appeared in Egypt. Then again when the first cases appeared in Iran.

        One of the oddities of discussion about this epidemic is that so many people (not you) both sneer at WHO then announce insights that WHO said weeks ago.

  3. Real deaths might be 50x official figures:

    We can follow WHO announcements online, can we? You mean the WHO that said China was doing a great job after covering up the outbreak for weeks? The WHO that praised China for its strict quarantine measures but criticized other countries for similar measures? The WHO headed by a member of the Tigray party that terrorized Ethiopia for decades? And which is accused of all sorts of corruption and harrassment?

    This is not the end of the world, but a lot of elderly and sick people around the world are at risk. Other health systems might also be overwhelmed, but to a lesser extent. Supply chains will be temporarily interupted.

    Stock up on basics in case of quarantine in your area. You should have already done this in case of other natural disasters, anyway. Ensure your elderly relatives and neighbours are prepared. Avoid crowds so far as possible.

    The CDC or your local health agency is likely to be a more reliable source of information. The WHO is hopelessly corrupt, is in the pocket of China, and is likely to be completely reformed after the dust from this debacle has settled.

    1. There seems to be no expert opinion that considers China has recorded all cases. No qualified observer appears to be claiming that China has managed to test all cases, and the numbers it is supplying are tested case (tested in different ways). Which is probably all it can responsibly do. At least they can be sure that the numbers they supply from this are properly based. People can then go on and argue about what they mean or indicate given such issues as how much testing capacity they have, how many people are presenting or not, and so on.

      However the number of 50x that you give and that appears in the ZH link is not based on anything as far as I can see. Its obviously not based in reported tested cases. Before you can arrive at it as a rational estimate, you have to have some chain of reasoning, and there is none. Why not 20x? Why not 100x? Why not 5X?

      The interesting case at the moment is Italy. They are reporting 7 deaths and 231 confirmed cases. Since many of the confirmed cases will not yet have recovered or died, this suggests one of two things is happening. Either the death rate is higher than we have thought previously. Or, if we have the death rate about right at 2% or lower, then the number of infections must be higher than the Italians have discovered and confirmed.

      We have to be rather wary of wild predictions on this. I think Larry is striking about the right balance. As to precautions, well. I am someone who will almost certainly die if I contract it, so I am fairly inclined to rigorous precautions. Its a matter of risk/reward ratios. But for those less at risk, moderate precautions and awareness seem to be indicated, but this is not, for them, the apocalypse. At least, not yet.

      ZH is amusing and occasionally insightful reading. But it does get a bit obsessed with doom, gloom and share price crashes which seem not to happen. At least not on time.

      1. I’m familiar with the nature of NH. The linked article in turns links to a story that 50 people died in an old people’s home, but only one of these was recorded as corona. This does not mean that the numbers are 50x those reported. My point is, they are clearly so far out of whack that even the claim that infections are slowing out to be treated with suspicion. The CCP lies so much that I would trust bloody ZH before them. Same for the W.H.O.
        I agree with Larry that we should not panic – this, too shall pass – but I disagree that we should trust current figures that indicate the worst is now over.
        Take care of yourself. Those of us less prone to the virus should still take careful precautions as this will help us to prevent carrying it and passing it on to others who are more vulnerable.

      2. Henrik,

        “There seems to be no expert opinion that considers China has recorded all cases.”

        Your comment is, as so often the case, absurd. China’s health care systems in the affected provinces are in total chaos. The WHO situation reports, which I recommend reading, document in great detail China’s efforts to track the epidemic, and the problems they are having.

        The assumption is that they are recording cases in a more-or-less consistent manner. Since the WHO team of experts just returned from China, I suspect they have a fairly good idea what is going on.

        “ZH is amusing and occasionally insightful reading. ”

        It is a source of negative information. That is, most readers are more poorly informed after reading it than before. In the 13 years I’ve run the FM website (66k comments), a very large fraction of the people writing comments who are misinformed or ignorant get info from ZH. That fraction is much higher on posts about economics and finance – or subjects on which ZH is “reporting”.

        “ZH is amusing and occasionally insightful reading. “

      3. “China’s health care systems in the affected provinces are in total chaos”

        Surely the conclusion from this must be that total cases are higher than is being reported, on the basis of confirmed cases? If they are reporting only confirmed cases, and if they are in chaos, the total incidence must be higher.

        We just do not know how much higher.

        A similar point probably applies to Iran.

        I agree that if Chinese cases continue to fall, that will be good news. We shall see over the next couple of weeks whether the alarmists are right.

      4. Henrik,

        Since you ignored my reply, I’ll repeat it – the basis for the WHO conclusion about the current status of the epidemic in China.

        “The assumption is that they are recording cases in a more-or-less consistent manner.”

        The trend in the number of cases – rate of increase and the acceleration/deceleration – is more important than the level (total number) of cases.

        “Since the WHO team of experts just returned from China, I suspect they have a fairly good idea what is going on.”

        First-hand evaluation of the situation on the ground is more useful in chaotic situations than statistics.

    2. Nikolai,

      I feel sad for you that you think ZeroHedge is a news source. It is the modern equivalent of the old-style National Inquirer tabloids (read about Elvis returning to Neptune and the infant who recites the bible from memory!).

      I used to run an occasional article documenting its absurd “info”. For a year or so they reported every relief of carriers off Iran as preparation for a US INVASION! Another favorite was reporting unseasonally adjusted economic numbers without mentioning that (creating lurid but bogus headlines). And their fav – repeated announcements of coming hyperinflation (during a period of stable low inflation).

      Then I realized that people who get info from ZH like to be misinformed. It was like telling people who frequently eat at McDonalds that the food was not really good for them.

      So I’ll bin your comment in the “from absurdistan” file.

      1. Fair enough, I’ll stop believing ZH if you stop believing the CCP and WHO. Here’s an example of WHO corruption from AP, if you reckon we can trust them:

        And the present boss of the WHO., ‘Dr’ Tedros, has been accused of covering up outbreaks before:

      2. Nikolai,

        “AP Exclusive: Health agency spends more on travel than AIDS”

        That’s silly for two reasons. First, WHO is largely an advisory agency – not a funding agency. They send teams around the world to collect data and get advice – their primary functions. That’s why travel is a large fraction of their expenses. They don’t run many operations; that’s the job of nations’ public health agency.

        As for the Director’s personal expenses — It’s a common problem. People made the same complaint about Presidents Obama and Trump. A similar complaint has been justifiably made about many leaders in history – such as George Washington’s lavish travel and entertainment bills as commander of the army. He offered to serve without pay if Congress would pay all his personal expenses; it was a bad deal for Congress. Should the Continental Congress have fired him?

        As for the complaint by “adviser to Dr. David Nabarro, a rival candidate in the race for W.H.O. director general” — whatever, dude.

        People who believe fringe information aren’t worth talking to. I’m modertaing your comments. Anything rational will be posted.

      3. Nikolai,

        You are hilarious. That article describes two things. First, that WHO is underfunded. Which WHO has been saying for a long time. And has been saying weekly since the beginning of this epidemic. Their weekly briefings describe their efforts to raise the necessary funds to fight this epidemic.

        Second, it says that there are corruption “allegations.” There have been “corruption allegations” against a large fraction of the US government — and our presidents (not just Trump) – for pretty much forever. Some departments have perpetual and well-documented evidence of corruption, such as HUD and DoD. Others have what is in effect institutionalized corruption – such as the SEC and FDA.

        This is the norm in most nations. Some nations have endemic political corruption scandals, such as Japan.

        2017: “Brought down by corruption: 4 world leaders shown the door” – Brazil, Iceland, Pakistan, South Korea. That year’s crop.

        2020: “Corruption is corroding democracies around the world.” This year has a bumper crop of govt corruption scandals.

        2020: the 25 largest government corruption scandals of the past 25 years. Around the world!

    3. We won’t know anything like the whole truth about the Chinese response to the Covid19 outbreak for a long time, if ever. However, I think that there are a few things we can learn:

      Maintaining adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies to deal with outbreaks is essential for combating an epidemic. My personal experience with working on hazardous sites shows me that you can use a staggering amount of kit for even a short term job.
      On the issue of PPE, we need to ensure that we are not vulnerable to long supply change interruptions. If all your face masks, rubber gloves and tyvek overalls are made in China, you may have trouble sourcing these items when you need them if the outbreak begins there.
      The Chinese have shown that containment is possible, but may require heroic efforts. Don’t underestimate the difficulty but also don’t be afraid

      Overall, however the Covid19 epidemic plays out, we need to apply the lessons from the outbreak to prepare for the next. Oh yes, there will be another outbreak someday.

      1. Raymond,

        A useful rule is that whenever an amateur recommends that the govt take some obvious preparation measure, it has either already been done or is infeasible. As for building reserves of medical supplies, cities and states often have those. Most major nations have them.

        This being the US, we have the biggest: funded at $600 million per year, run by a staff of two hundred. With a second tier of supplies if the first isn’t enough.

        Details here, because experts usually know what they’re doing.

        “We won’t know anything like the whole truth about the Chinese response to the Covid19 outbreak for a long time, if ever”

        I can’t imagine why you say that. There is no iron curtain walling it off from the world.

  4. I feel like the other comments here show the modern-day decline in trusts in institutions pretty concisely.

    In the midst of the Coronavirus epidemic, President Trump proposed cutting funding to the World Health Organization by 53% and to the Pan American Health Organization by 75%. Madness.

    Clearly he’s sticking it to “Big Lung.” (Jokes aside I imagine this was some mix of reflexive distrust of any international organization, and some zombie-instinct “funding not for the military? cut it” Republican crap.)

  5. Even worse record than the WHO and the Chinese are the doomsters. Not just individuals, but even communities have believed the impossible preached by doomsters and shunned the truth told by the knowledgeable. History is full of examples, as is the internet.

    My recommendation is to treat all things and stories with the respect they deserve. Should WHO and the Chinese be taken to task for misinformation, yes. Should doomsters be taken to task for theirs, yes. Even though a clock may be correct twice a day, it serves no purpose used as a timepiece. Doomsters may be correct occasionally, they serve no purpose used as sages.

    1. John,

      “Even worse record than the WHO and the Chinese ”

      Both are nonsense. The first is just a lie.

      As for the Chinese – it’s nonsense. China has a GDP per capita of ~$9k vs. the US of $60k. Their public health systems are accordingly poor by comparison with ours. For example, their death certificates show the immediate cause of death (eg, pneumonia) not the underlying cause of death (eg, covid-19). Their internal tracking systems are equally poor.

      Their leaders made mistakes in the early stages, but responded quickly once they realized the seriousness of the epidemic. In the core affected provinces, their medical systems were overloaded – probably reduced to chaos. That’s how epidemics have worked throughout history. The provinces used different systems for identifying the number affected (eg, clinical, lab tests) – and some switched as testing kits became available (the WHO reports documented much of this confusion).

      Considering America’s list of screw-ups in the past few decades – under much less harrowing situations – our holly-than-thou attitude to China is not just ludicrous but pitiful. My guess is that after-the-fact analysis will give China’s leaders a pretty good grade. I very much doubt historians will be so kind when evaluating America’s citizens and leaders.

      1. I agree Larry. The record is clear, The WHO and the Chinese are correcting, learning, and improving. The record is also clear, that they have historically been doing this.

        Not so, with the calamitists.

        I thought I had done a better job of implying “Give credit where due.” I should have just stated it.

      2. The Chinese are doing the best they can given the constraints of their system but I think you are glossing over the deliberate censoring and repression of those who tried to sound the alarm early on.

        I understand the desire to maintain a balanced perspective, but how can you blame people being skeptical of official Chinese data when there is clear evidence of them shutting down any non official sources of information?

        Also I dont think its necessarily extreme or unjustified to be fearful of a virus that according to the institutional experts themselves, we have no developed immunity to.

        Yes, our medical knowledge is superior to anytime in history, but given the wiping out of the majority of the Native American populations in the first decades after European contact, primarily due to the total lack of immunity to disease linked to animals, it is not irrational to be highly concerned.

      3. Dave,

        “deliberate censoring and repression of those who tried to sound the alarm early on.”

        As I said, they screwed up early on. But that was before the central govt officials took over, their first team.

        Also, it is imo cracked that so many Americans are so critical of info control by China’s govt but so credulous of statements by US officials – whose record of lying about vital issues is amazing.

        “ we have no developed immunity to”

        That is true only in the sense that it is true of every flu. There are flus with fatality rates over 50%, vs this at ~2% or less.

        “the wiping out of the majority of the Native American populations in the first decades after European contact”

        So you believe every epidemic should terrify us because of events centuries ago? Well, ok.;

      4. It is not unreasonable to be concerned, or concerned what some government may not be telling. It is unreasonable to ignore that until one has numbers, anybody can claim anything. Also, it is important to understand that emergencies have a procedure that has a “conservative” basis. The conservative basis depends on whether it is medical, natural, environmental, etc. Proper preparation is to send what is needed as it is discovered, with an estimate of reasonable excess. As information becomes available, ramping up, maintaining, or ramping down will occur. Considering how fast the Chinese responded, the potential the disease showed, and the control demonstrated by the Chinese as indicated by the results to date, it is not reasonable, at this date, to believe gross negligence on their part.

        It is especially true of disease that information lags from incubation times, minimal symptoms, multiple potential causes, frank symptom lags, and human/site factors such as wealth, population density, government and medical response times, etc. These occur regardless of the country. Don’t be innumerate .Larry has been keeping score. When the disease is controlled, that is when the numbers will show if Larry is correct or not.

      5. John,

        A small correction..,

        “Larry has been keeping score.”

        I have no contacts anywhere. WHO is keeping “score”, but only in the sense of tabulating numbers given them by individual nations.

        It’s like everything. Established data sources are almost always the best available.

        I’ve been on this game four decades, and have found the established sources always more accurate than those of the big boasting amateurs. Inflation, GDP, car sales, global temperature … all provided exciting stories for the general public – that proved to be bogus.

        The key is to understand limitations of the providers. China’s worst hit provinces have overwhelmed public health systems, so are undercounting. But the people on the ground have a feel what’s happening, so the WHO survey team reported their findings. Lots of people’s credibility is on the line, so their estimates might be wrong – but are the best available.

        Contrast that with the doomsayers going for clicks. When they are wrong again, their audience won’t care. Today in America there is no penalty for selling misinformation.

        This is not new.the biggest asset for conmen is their suckers list. If they were fooled once, they probably can be fooled again.

  6. Good news indeed. Thus verifying the First Law of Predictions, which is: Worst Case forecasts are almost always wrong.

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  9. Thanks for the update, Larry. COVID-19 news from China is sparse these days, but everything I’ve seen supports your numbers.

    I’m somewhat more worried about the number of cases in the US, Italy, Spain, and South Korea but those numbers are still relatively small and the national governments are reasonably well-organized and can lean on China’s experience on how to contain the virus.

    1. Pluto,

      “I’m somewhat more worried about the number of cases in the US, Italy, Spain, and South Korea ”

      Two of those nations are unlike the others.

      South Korea: 977 reported cases, 214 new. Population 52 million.
      Italy – 225, 105 new today. Population 61 million.
      US: 53, 18 today. Population 330 million.
      Spain: 2, none new today. Population 50 million,

      “the national governments are reasonably well-organized ”

      The US public health agencies are well-funded and fully mobilized for this. This is the third major global epidemic in the past 11 years, and they have had 7 weeks to prepare.

      “and can lean on China’s experience on how to contain the virus.”

      That is an important factor, and widely ignored amidst the China-hating that is part of America’s increasing paranoia and insularity. That’s the subject of tomorrow’s post.

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  11. With no preparation and relatively primitive public health networks (compared to those of developed nations), the epidemic stabilized in roughly four weeks – probably due to China’s fast and large quarantines. That is good news because other nations are relying on quarantines to contain the infection.

    Also, this suggests that the doomsters’ predictions that the epidemic would prove uncontrollable in China – sweeping through to its four corners – are wrong.

    Hmmm. Quarantine or production? Let me think.

    1. Simon,

      “Quarantine or production? Let me think.”

      I don’t understand your comment. Why is a choice of “massive deaths or fewer deaths” a difficult choice?

      Technically we’re discussing China’s cordon sanitaire (see Wikipedia), not a quarantine (Wikipedia). The former is applies to everybody in a region, the latter applies to people infected or who might be infected (eg, individuals, a household, or a ship).

      It is a painful choice, which leaders have had to make since the 14th century. It is more necessary now, with modern transportation, for diseases for which there are no tests.

      1. M Simon,

        There are tests in the US also. But they sometimes registered inconclusive (requiring retesting) and so the CDC has been reluctant to allow other labs to use them (least the inconclusive results be misinterpreted). On the CDC’s February 28 media briefing they announced that problem has been solved, and they are allowing State labs to do large scale testing.

        Then, as now, the initial screening is by clinical criteria to determine who is a Person Under Investigation (PUI). Every test generates false positives, so their use on a largely unaffected population will generate a flood of positive results for people who do not have the disease.

        Due to the effective screening at the borders and travel limitations, the US has had a small number of cases requiring testing – so that the CDC could do them. Fortunately, they are widely distributing kits just as the disease goes global.

        China and South Korea are using testing kits in large numbers. Have you seen any analysis validating the efficacy of their kits? But both have raging epidemics. They might have decided that only-sometimes working kits were better than none. They might be using sometimes-ineffective kits – which that has contributed to the spread of the disease. I don’t know the answer, and I doubt that you do either.

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