Birx: Initial Western COVID-19 response handicapped by "missing a significant amount of the data" from China

Perhaps the most important moment of Donald Trump’s daily coronavirus crisis briefing yesterday came not from Trump but from Dr. Deborah Birx. As in other briefings, reporters asked why the administration initially downplayed the potential severity of COVID-19. Birx made it very clear, albeit in a diplomatic fashion, that the official reports from China about the numbers and the spread in Wuhan and Hubei painted a picture of a very different disease.

“I think the medical community made — interpreted the Chinese data as this was serious, but smaller than anyone expected,” Birx explained, “because probably we were missing a significant amount of the data” from China:

What data were we missing? The much-larger numbers on COVID-19 spread, for one. China insisted as late as mid-January (if not later) that they were not seeing any signs of “asymptomatic spread,” meaning that casual contact would not propagate the disease. This turned out to be spectacularly wrong, and China knew it. In fact, they were suppressing doctors who tried to warn the outside world of the wildfire spread of this coronavirus, and their initial success in tamping that information down led other countries — including the US — to assume this was a SARS variant with low risk for pandemic, as Birx explains.

When did China finally start being honest about asymptomatic spread? Today, and only maybe:

A top Chinese health official said Wednesday that the government will begin counting coronavirus patients without symptoms in its official tally of cases of the virus, in what is a tacit acknowledgement that Beijing has underreported data on the pandemic.

China’s National Health Commission disclosed that the government is monitoring 1,541 people who have tested positive for coronavirus but have no symptoms.

Chang Jile, the head of the health agency, said at a press conference in Wuhan that the government will start reporting asymptomatic patient numbers Wednesday.

“From April 1, we will publish reports, outcomes and management of asymptomatic people in daily epidemic notifications, and respond to social concerns in a timely manner,” Jile said, according to CCTV.

Jile’s statement is the first time that the government has officially acknowledged that it has undercounted patients.

Yes, you read that correctly. Three months or more after China knew asymptomatic carriers were a problem, and at least a month since other countries learned that the hard way, Beijing now says they’ll start providing that data. It’s a little too late for that to do any good in terms of public policy, even if they start reporting that data honestly, which is far from certain even now. Had we known that data when China knew it and suppressed it, we might have been able to arrest the spread early and save thousands of lives, if not hundreds of thousands of lives.

And yet, as my friend Jeryl Bier points out at The Dispatch, the American media keep treating China’s data as both reliable and remarkable:

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rises quickly in the United States and in many other countries around the world, the official number of new cases in China, the source of the pandemic, has fallen dramatically. Given the record of secrecy, duplicity, and coverup by the Communist government of China, there is little cause to take those official figures at anything close to face value. Nevertheless, Western media organizations, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations have taken to referring to China’s numbers as “confirmed cases” comparable to cases in other countries with more open societies and transparent governments, giving the impression that China has largely conquered the virus. …

Various media organizations have similarly relied on China’s numbers for some pretty dramatic headlines. On March 18, the New York Times declared: “China Hits a Coronavirus Milestone: No New Local Infections.” While the article notes in passing that Chinese “officials initially concealed and mismanaged the outbreak,” it goes on to flatly assert that “Beijing’s sledgehammer approach … worked to quickly lower the number of infections[.]” Axios headlined a similar report “No new coronavirus cases in Wuhan, China, where global pandemic began,” while NPR went with ”China Reports No New Domestic Cases, But Battles Coronavirus Imported From Abroad.”

Eight days later, the Times, again based on China’s “confirmed” numbers, told the world that, “The U.S. Now Leads the World in Confirmed Coronavirus Cases.” While the article says that “The Times is engaged in a comprehensive effort to track the details of every confirmed case in the United States, collecting information from federal, state and local officials,” apparently the Times applied considerably less rigor to acquire information on China.

On Monday, however, came news that China’s numbers have indeed been incomplete. The Wall Street Journal reported that “China said more than 1,500 people who were infected with the virus but haven’t shown symptoms weren’t included in its national tally of confirmed cases.”

That report finally prompted China’s rethink on reporting asymptomatic cases. Their track record right up to today should have everyone highly skeptical that they will suddenly discover honesty and transparency.

At least ABC News shows signs of awakening:

This is just the latest example of how China is an unreliable source of data on COVID-19, and pretty much anything else, for that matter. They prioritize propaganda over everything else, including global health and lives at home and abroad. Media outlets that keep talking about China’s “model” response based on nothing but Beijing’s self-reported numbers should be ashamed of themselves. Their readers and consumers will remember how cheaply they sold their credibility for a very long time after this pandemic is over.