Blockbuster news from China about COVID-19

by Fabius Maximus

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 – sweepting 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 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 currrent 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 – encouaging more experts to fuel the hysteria for their own gain.

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 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.

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