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US intelligence: China hid scale of outbreak

April 2, 2020

A new classified report for the White House says Beijing undercounted the number of coronavirus cases and deaths. China's data is likely to come under further scrutiny as infections skyrocket in the US.

A couple wearing protective suits
Image: Getty Images/AFP/N. Celis

China has covered up the extent of the country's coronavirus outbreak, US intelligence officials conclude in a classified report for the Trump administration.

Bloomberg News cited three US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, who said China's public reporting of both infections and deaths was intentionally incomplete.

Two of the officials told the news agency that China's figures are fake. But no further details of the report's findings have so far been made public.

China quickly rejected the intelligence report's conclusions. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the country had been "open and transparent" about the extent of the outbreak before accusing Washington of trying to "shift the blame."

Mounting skepticism

Even so, the revelations follow suspicion for several weeks that China has underreported the scale of its coronavirus outbreak.

Read more: Beijing comes cautiously back to life as COVID-19 hits hardest beyond China

China has reported 82,000 cases and 3,300 deaths of COVID-19. The country's death toll is lower than the United States, Spain and Italy.

The US has quickly surpassed China, recording the world's largest publicly recorded outbreak, with 213,372 infections and 4,475 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

On Wednesday, US president Donald Trump denied having read an intelligence report about the outbreak in China, but told a White House new briefing on the pandemic that China's numbers "seem a little on the light side and I’m being nice when I say that." 

Scientists have doubts

Health experts also joined the chorus of skepticism over the scale of the outbreak in the Asian powerhouse. The chairman of the France-based World Medical Association said Chinas figures aren't credible.

Dr. Frank Ulrich Montgomery said the recent low Chinese numbers were "nonsense" and suggested Beijing was intentionally providing false figures.

But he admitted that other countries are also working with uncertain figures because better data often isn't available, often as a result of a lack of proper testing.

Earlier this week, Deborah Birx, the immunologist advising the Trump administration on its response to the outbreak, said the outbreak in China was "serious, but smaller than anyone expected."

She added: "I think we're probably we were missing a significant amount of the data [from China] now that what we see happened to Italy and see what happened to Spain."

Did China know in November?

US Vice President Mike Pence said Chinese officials may have known about the outbreak, which was first detected in the city of Wuhan in December, a month before they went public.

"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," Pence told CNN.

Read more: Disinformation and propaganda during the coronavirus pandemic

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress expressed outrage about Beijing's apparent deception. Republican Senator Ben Sasse attacked China's numbers as "garbage propaganda."

"The claim that the United States has more coronavirus deaths than China is false," Sasse said in a statement.

Communist Party is 'lying'

"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."

In a statement responding to the report, Michael McCaul, top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said China is "not a trustworthy partner" in the fight against COVID-19.

Read more: Opinion: From US to China, lies and coronavirus pandemic

"They lied to the world about the human-to-human transmission of the virus, silenced doctors and journalists who tried to report the truth, and are now apparently hiding the accurate number of people impacted by this disease," McCaul said.

He and other lawmakers have called on the State Department to launch an investigation into what he called China's "cover-up" about the pandemic.

Thousands of urns delivered

Last week, reports emerged that thousands of urns — many times the number required for those who died in the outbreak — had been delivered to funeral homes across Hubei province.

Chinese media outlet Caixin published photos of the deliveries of up to 8,500 urns arriving in Wuhan alone.

Long lines of bereaved relatives outside funeral homes have also boosted concerns that the true scale of the outbreak has not been made public.

mm/rt (AFP, Reuters)

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