By Chan Kung andYu (Tony) Pan*
As far as the ongoing novel coronavirus epidemic is concerned, ANBOUND may very well be the first think-tank organization to have classified it as a “flu-like strain”, a sentiment that seems to be garnering increasing echo as the day goes by. Just a few days ago, the World Health Organization’s most prestigious medical journal, The Lancet published an article titled – “COVID-19: what is next for public health?” which saw WHO experts stating that the novel coronavirus behaves very much like a seasonal influenza and possesses characteristics far different than that of the SARS and MERS. Consequently, they believe that the best way to deal with the virus is to employ measures similar to the ones used to contain influenza. As ANBOUND had pointed out time and time again, the systematic definition of the virus holds great significance, as it determines the theoretical basis of the respond method, which is key to an important scientific decision-making, and even more so concerning the fate of millions. Bearing the current circumstances in mind, there is a need for the government to revisit the virus’ “flu-like” definition on a comprehensive scale.
At present, apart from the differences presented from the standpoint of virology (it is posited the novel coronavirus did necessarily cause the influenza), another factor that impedes the government from straight up classifying the virus as an “influenza” is largely due to the fact that the mortality rate of the virus is far higher compared to an influenza. The latest statistics have shown that the novel coronavirus boasts a mortality rate of 2.5% globally, while the 2018 influenza that infected 60 million Americans was a mere 0.17% mortality rate. Additionally, on a broader level, the influenza’s mortality rate generally fluctuates between 0.4% to 1% due to the differences in each country’s medical standards and prevention and control measures. As such, ANBOUND believes that the coronavirus’ mortality rate deserves tighter scrutiny and an even more thorough analysis.
As of February 18, 2020, public data has reported a total of 1873 deaths resulting from the coronavirus epidemic worldwide. Ironically, 1870 of them happened within China. Outside of Asia, there were 540 confirmed cases and 1 death reported in the rest of the world, with said death being an 80-year old victim from Hubei, China who was traveling abroad. This also means that the virus’ mortality rate, in Asia at least, is technically only 0.18%, far lower than that of a regular “influenza”. Meanwhile, barring China, 260 confirmed cases and 2 deaths were reported in Asia, both in Japan and the Philippines respectively, the former involving an 80-year old Japanese female victim and the latter a 44-year old Chinese male victim. Taking China out of the picture, the mortality rate in Asia is approximately 0.7%, which is to say that it falls under the category of influenza. Logically speaking, there are two reasons Asia’s mortality rate (again, China excluded) far exceeds its actual value. One, the standards of medical resources varies between countries, which in this case, Japan reigns superior over the Philippines; Two, the epidemic in the affected area have yet to reach the scale of a “full-blown outbreak”, which in turn distorts the accuracy of the data. Using an extreme case as a basis of example and operating under the assumption that no further confirmed cases were to be reported in the Philippines, the coronavirus’ mortality rate is likely to remain at 30%, which is another way of saying it isn’t scientifically accurate at all. Clearly, there are obvious statistical errors concerning the coronavirus’ mortality rate in China and the other affected areas that is difficult to explain from the viewpoint of epidemiology and virology.
A further analysis also shows that the error is present within local statistics. As of February 18 (same as above), China has seen a cumulated confirmed case of 72528 infected patients and 1870 reported deaths, totaling to a mortality rate of 2.5%. Yet it is Hubei that accounts for 95% of the death toll, 1696 deaths in number. Comparing Hubei to the rest of the affected areas, Hubei’s mortality rate is at a solid 2%. Between January 24 to 26, the figure soared to an all-time high of 5.4%, then eventually declining and hovering around 3%. Ironically, none of the other affected areas has seen a mortality rate exceeding 1%. As such, the only possible justification for the coronavirus’ unusually high mortality rate in China as compared to the rest of the world, at least from a statistical point of view, is simply the fact that Hubei’s jarring mortality rate has skewed the results greatly.
Scientifically speaking, there’s a uniformed explanation for the jarring statistical errors behind every affected area though given the lack of information for the time being, ANBOUND is unable to provide a conclusive finding pertaining Hubei’s high mortality rate. That being said, if one were to look at things through the lenses of information analysis, one may find the following explanations plausible:
- Local policy reasons, which refers to the local government’s horrible decision-making early on into the matter. When Hubei was first declared the epicenter of the virus, the government had made a series of bad decisions concerning the matter, which caused the city’s medical facilities to be incapable of bearing the burden when the virus progressed into a massive outbreak in a short period of time. Consequently, this led to the city’s “lockdown” in an effort to prevent and control the epidemic from spreading further. While the act of sealing off the city from the rest of the world did successfully prevent the virus from breaking out on global scale, it had also resulted in a certain degree of chaos and confusion within Hubei.
- Statistical reasons, or the “blind spots” present in the numbers concerning the number of confirmed cases. The inaccurate figures may have resulted in an overestimation in the virus’ mortality rate. However, this is very unlikely given the “large-scale interventions” from the central government.
- Reasons stemming from virology, or epidemiological nature, such as the discrepancy in the mortality rate caused by the varying traits in the virus and the infected person. The genetic composition of an infected individual plays a role in shaping the mortality rate, thus leading to a degree of differences, Of course, this would require further testing from fellow experts within the field for it to be valid, which could take up to tens of years to do so. Then again, seeing that there is a huge gap in the mortality rate between Hubei and the rest of affected areas, such scenarios are highly unlikely to happen.
Regardless of the root cause behind Hubei’s unusually high mortality rate, a reassessment of the virus’ mortality rate is a much-needed step at this point, and undoubtedly so. The novel coronavirus this time around is that of an “infleunza”, with its key traits being a high transmission rate and low mortality rate. Just to be clear, this does not imply that ANBOUND is downplaying on the importance of preventive and control efforts concerning the epidemic. On the contrary, preventive and control efforts are highly crucial and necessary, as it ensures the safety of the country’s people and its wealth. What this does mean however, is that as long as the problem is tackled from the wrong angle, no amount of efforts can and will sufficiently contain the virus, what more when the Chinese economy deserves as much attention too, seeing that the epidemic has greatly impacted it negatively. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that China’s economic development interests clashes with the epidemic’s prevention and control efforts. While most areas in the country have seen a resumption of work as of late, many companies and local government prefer erring on the side of caution nonetheless. Without a doubt, being a lawful-abiding member of the society is important but it will certainly affect the state at which productivity can resume in the country. On the central government’s end, what ultimately matters to them is the need for a balance between both sides of interest, before settling on a scientific decision. For that to happen, a scientific decision-making process in the near future is highly necessary, and part of that can be achieved by reassessing and breaking down the mortality rate, redefining the epidemic as well as reconsidering and readjusting the prevention and control system altogether.
Final analysis conclusion:
There is a conflict of interest surrounding the country’s economic development and its epidemic prevention and control efforts. Therefore, it is imperative that the country adopts a systematic way in its decision makings and responses to maximize its policy results, and where the novel coronavirus is concerned, reassessing its mortality rate happens to be one of the key aspects to approaching it scientifically.
Founder of Anbound Think Tank in 1993, Chan Kung is now ANBOUND Chief Researcher. Chan Kung is one of China’s renowned experts in information analysis. Most of Chan Kung‘s outstanding academic research activities are in economic information analysis, particularly in the area of public policy.
Mr. Yu(Tony) Pan serves as the associate research fellow and the research assistantof Mr. Chen Gong, Founder, Chairman, and the Chief Researcher of ANBOUND. Heobtained his master’s degree at George Washington University, the Elliott School of International Affairs; and his bachelor’s degree in University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. Mr. Pan has published pieces in various platform domestically and internationally. He currently focuses on Asian Security, geopolitics in Indo-Pacific region and the U.S.-Sino Relations.