Wuhan, the pandemic’s first epicenter, may have had 10 times as many COVID-19 cases as were reported, a study from China’s CDC suggests

wuhan testing
A medical worker taking a swab from a resident in Wuhan, China, on May 15.
  • Ten times as many people in Wuhan, China, may have had COVID-19 as has been confirmed, China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention has said.
  • The CDC posted the results of an antibody study of 34,000 people from Wuhan on WeChat on Monday. It is unclear whether the study has been peer reviewed.
  • The study, conducted in April, found that 4.4% of those sampled in the city of 11 million people had coronavirus antibodies.
  • As of Monday, there had been 50,354 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wuhan, but the study suggests the real number could be higher than 480,000.
  • China has been accused of covering up the extent of its outbreak and has silenced journalists and doctors who have spoken out.
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The real number of coronavirus cases in Wuhan, China, could be 10 times as high as the number publicly reported, China's top health agency has said.

Researchers conducting a study in April found that 4.4% of a sample of 34,000 people in Wuhan had tested positive for coronavirus antibodies.

Applying that percentage to the city's population of 11 million suggests more than 480,000 people may have become infected, far higher than the 50,354 COVID-19 cases that had been confirmed by Wuhan's local health authority as of Monday.

The results suggest that Wuhan authorities vastly underreported, or struggled to identify correctly, cases of COVID-19 early in the country's epidemic.

airport disinfecting wuhan
Firefighters disinfecting the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport on April 3.

Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Agence France-Presse that the discrepancy might "point to potential underreporting due to the chaos in late January and early February, when a large number of people were not tested or were not tested accurately for COVID-19."

Countries around the world are thought to have underreported coronavirus cases, many of which never result in symptoms.

On Monday, Russia said its COVID-19 death toll was actually three times higher than stated.

Tatiana Golikova, Russia's deputy prime minister, said that 81% of 229,700 new deaths recorded in the country from January to November were "due to COVID," The Guardian said.

The update puts Russia's known death toll at 186,000, the third-highest in the world.

But China, where the novel virus was first detected, has faced accusations throughout this year of covering up the true extent of its outbreak, including by silencing doctors and journalists.

On Monday, Zhang Zhan, a freelance journalist, was jailed for reporting from Wuhan during the onset of the city's outbreak, the BBC said.

An investigation by the Associated Press also found that China knew the coronavirus could become a pandemic in mid-January but for six days claimed publicly that there was no evidence it could spread among humans.

Early this month, CNN reported on leaked documents that showed disparities in the way China reported cases early in its epidemic. On February 10, China reported 2,478 new cases even though officials had privately recorded 5,918, the outlet reported, adding that there was no evidence from the documents alone of deliberate attempts to mislead the public.

Xi Jinping China
Chinese President Xi Jinping at an event in Beijing on October 23.

Though the global case count now stands above 80 million, the Chinese CDC used the new study's findings to argue that Wuhan's 76-day lockdown worked at limiting the coronavirus' spread within China. It noted a disparity in the prevalence of antibodies in Wuhan residents compared with people outside the province of Hubei.

Outside Wuhan, in central Hubei province, only 0.4% of people who were sampled showed evidence of antibodies. The study said that out of 12,000 people tested across six provinces outside Hubei, only two people showed signs of coronavirus antibodies.

"The epidemic control with Wuhan as the main battlefield has successfully and effectively prevented the large-scale spread of the epidemic," the study said.

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