Nearly 250 million people in China may have caught Covid-19 in the first 20 days of December, according to an internal estimate by the country’s top health officials, Bloomberg News and the Financial Times reported Friday.
If accurate, the estimate — which CNN cannot independently confirm — would account for roughly 18% of China’s 1.4 billion people and represent the largest Covid-19 outbreak to date globally.
The cited figures were presented during an internal meeting of China’s National Health Commission (NHC) on Wednesday, according to both outlets – which cited sources familiar with the matter or involved in the discussions. The NHC summary of Wednesday’s meeting said it delved into the treatment of patients affected by the new outbreak.
On Friday, a copy of what purported to be the NHC meeting notes was circulated on Chinese social media and seen by CNN; the authenticity of the document has not been verified and the NHC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Both the Financial Times and Bloomberg reported in great detail on the authorities’ discussions on how to handle the outbreak.
Among the estimates cited in both reports was the revelation that on Tuesday alone, 37 million people were newly infected with Covid-19 across China. That was in dramatic contrast to the official number of 3,049 new infections reported that day.
The Financial Times said it was Sun Yang – a deputy director of China’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – who presented the figures to officials during the closed briefing, citing two people familiar with the matter.
Sun explained that the rate of spread of Covid in China is still rising and estimated that more than half of the population in Beijing and Sichuan were already infected, according to the Financial Times.
The estimates follow China’s decision in early December to suddenly wind down its strict zero-Covid policy that had been in place for nearly three years.
The figures are in stark contrast to the public data from the NHC, which reported just 62,592 symptomatic Covid cases in the first twenty days of December.
How the NHC arrived at the estimates cited by Bloomberg and the Financial Times is unclear, as China no longer officially counts its total number of infections, after authorities shut down its nationwide network of PCR testing booths and said it would stop collecting data on asymptomatic cases.
People in China also now use rapid antigen tests to detect infections and are not required to report positive results.
Officially, China has reported just eight Covid-related deaths this month – a strikingly low number given the rapid spread of the virus and the relatively low numbers of vaccine boosters among the elderly.
Only 42.3% of those 80 and older in China have received a third dose of the vaccine, according to a CNN calculation of new figures released by the NHC on December 14.
Facing growing skepticism that it is downplaying Covid-related deaths, the Chinese government defended the accuracy of its official tally by revealing it had updated its method of counting deaths caused by the virus.
Under the latest NHC guidelines, only deaths caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure after contracting the virus are classified as Covid deaths, Wang Guiqiang, a top infectious disease doctor, told a news conference on Tuesday.
Minutes from Wednesday’s closed-door NHC meeting did not refer to discussions of how many people may have died in China, according to both reports and the document seen by CNN.
“The numbers look reasonable, but I have no other data sources to compare [them] with. If the estimated infection numbers mentioned here are correct, it means that the nationwide peak will occur within the next week, Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong told CNN in an email, when asked about the alleged NHC – the estimates. .