China recorded a tenfold surge in infections classed as flu at the end of last year, a study has found, suggesting that the coronavirus may have already spread to thousands of people and was being misdiagnosed.
The health authorities reported 1.2 million cases of influenza in December, compared with 130,442 recorded in the same month in 2018. The figure was also nearly twice that of the previous year’s peak month for flu in January, when 608,511 cases were registered.
The figures published by China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention were highlighted by SindoInsider, a Taiwanese consultancy group, which said that the huge increase suggested that the virus was being diagnosed as flu in the weeks before China notified the World Health Organisation (WHO) on December 31 of a new disease.
The health commission stopped providing weekly reports on flu cases on December 27, SinoInsider said. China says that it detected its first cases of the new virus late in December and alerted the WHO immediately. But the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, had reported only a few dozen cases by mid-January, as officials repeatedly assured the public that the disease was not infectious.
“Based on the timing of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, we have reasons to believe that the uncharacteristic explosion of flu cases in December may be due to the undetected spread of the coronavirus,” SinoInsider said. “We estimate that tens of thousands of people could have been infected with Covid-19 by the end of December.”
A study published by the Harvard Medical School last week showed large increases in traffic at Wuhan hospitals last autumn, coinciding with a surge in internet searches for symptoms now known to be related to the coronavirus. The study is yet to be peer-reviewed.
In April Wuhan revised its number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths. Total cases were raised to 50,333, up 325, and the number of deaths was adjusted to 3,869 — 1,290 more than the previous count.
Foreign governments and health experts have remained sceptical about the tally, pointing out that the city of 14 million people was not in lockdown until January 23, weeks after the first official case was confirmed.