China’s coronavirus epidemic isn’t over by a long shot, warns no less than the country’s top disease expert. In a rare contradiction to Beijing’s official narrative, Zeng Guang, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention‘s chief epidemiologist, said on Thursday that the virus is still rampant in the country and that it has now entered a new phase where it’s likely to infect more people.
“The novel coronavirus has spread to more than 200 countries, and infected much more people than SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome]. In the end, the virus may infect more than 100 times the number of people during SARS,” he told state-run newspaper Health Times.
It’s been 17 years since the SARS outbreak first hit Guangdong Province in China. The outbreak, caused by the eponymous virus, spread to the rest of mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as parts of Southeast Asia and North America. At the height of the epidemic, the country was accused of trying to cover up the extent of the outbreak, which ultimately resulted in around 800 deaths.
With the emergence of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, the country is scrambling to regain public trust, with government officials insisting they’ve learned from past mistakes. Since the SARS outbreak, the country has placed stringent measures for handling major health threats. (Related: China’s response to COVID-19 is the latest in string of COVER-UPS and suppression.)
“With relatively complete prevention and control systems for sudden and infectious diseases in place since SARS … and with the support of the broad masses of the public, we are confident of victory,” said Li Bin, a vice minister at the National Health Commission (NHC), the country’s lead agency to combat COVID-19.
In particular, Chinese President Xi Jinping has trumpeted his country’s response to the current coronavirus pandemic; from his cabinet members saying that the country is doing much better, taking less than a month to announce the outbreak to the public, to him rallying for global coordination to manage the pandemic.
The current narrative is a stark difference to Beijing’s early response to the pandemic, where it detained Dr. Li Wenliang for “spreading false rumors” after he warned other doctors of a new SARS-like disease in early December, a month before authorities went public with the outbreak. The government has since exonerated Li, who died from the virus in early February. The move drew sharp criticism from the public, as the report maintained that the late doctor did not verify the information before sending it and that it was “not consistent with the actual situation at the time.”
For Zeng, the next phase of controlling the epidemic in China is a two-pronged approach aimed at preventing infected people from entering the country and identifying potential patients early on.
“[We should] maintain our capacity to find patients at an early stage, control the outbreak when it first starts, and prevent the next big outbreak,” he added.
The NHC, in a surprise announcement Tuesday, revealed a total of 1,541 asymptomatic COVID-19 cases. According to the agency, all cases have been put under medical observation. Following the report, Wu Zunyou, a disease specialist at the China CDC, downplayed the potential risk of spread of the newly identified cases.
“There’s a small possibility that asymptomatic carriers will cause an outbreak [in China],” he added. “The asymptomatic carriers won’t spread the virus in society.”
The NCH, in its website, provided opposing guidance: “There are diagnosed patients who were infected by asymptomatic carriers in our national research and some provinces’ studies. During an epidemiological investigation, we found asymptomatic carriers caused clusters of infections.”
Learn more about the novel coronavirus pandemic at Pandemic.news.