Yikes. Despite the withdrawal of the Indian paper arguing that the Wuhan virus showed signs of engineering, the hypothesis that that it’s an escaped bioweapon looks stronger than ever.
Why do I say this? Because it looks like my previous inclination to believe the rough correctness of the official statistics – as conveyed by the Johns Hopkins tracker – was wrong. I now think the Chinese are in way deeper shit than they’re admitting.
My willingness to believe the official line didn’t stem from any credulity about what the Chinese government would do if it believed the truth wouldn’t serve. As Communists they are lying evil scum pretty much by definition, and denial would have been politically attractive for as long as they thought they could nip the pandemic in the bud. I thought their incentives had flipped and they would now be honest as a way of assisting their own countermeasures and seeking international help.
My first clue that I was wrong about that came from a friend who is plugged into the diaspora Chinese community. According to him, there is terrifying video being sent from Chinese clans to the overseas branches they planted in the West to prepare a soft landing in case they have to bail out of China. Video of streets littered with corpses. And of living victims exhibiting symptoms like St. Vitus’s Dance (aka Sydenham’s chorea), which means the virus is attacking central nervous systems.
My second clue was the Tencent leak. Read about it here; the takeaway is that there is now reason to believe that as of Feb 1st the actual coronavirus toll looked like this: confirmed cases 154023, suspected cases 79808, cured 269, deaths 24589.
Compare that with the Johns Hopkins tracker numbers for today, a week later: Confirmed cases 31207, cured 1733, deaths 638. Allowing for the Tencent leak being roughly one doubling period earlier, the official statistics have been lowballing the confirmed case number by a factor of about 8 and the deaths by a factor of about 80. And then inflating cures by a factor of about 12.
Even given what I’d heard about the video, I might have remained skeptical about the leak numbers if someone (don’t remember who or where) hadn’t pointed out that the ratio between reported cases and deaths has been suspiciously constant in the official Chinese statistics. In uncooked statistics one would expect more noise in that ratio, if only because of reporting problems.
So my present judgment, subject to change on further evidence, is that the Tencent-leak numbers are the PRC’s actual statistics. And that has a lot of grim implications.
One is that the Wuhan virus has at least a 15% fatality rate in confirmed cases – and most ways the PRC’s own statistics could be off due to reporting problems would drive it higher. Another is that containment in China has failed. Even in the cooked official statistics first derivative has not fallen; the doubling time is on the close order of five days now and may decrease.
We are already well past any even theoretical coping capability of China’s medical infrastructure. For that matter, it isn’t likely that there are enough trained medical personnel on the entire planet to get on top of a pandemic this size with a 5-day doubling time.
Which means this thing is probably not going to top out in China until it saturates the percentage of the population without natural immunity and kills at least 15% of them. The big, grim question is how many natural immunes there are. The history of past natural pandemics does not conduce to any optimism at all about that.
A very safe prediction is that a whole lot of elderly Chinese people are going to die because their immune systems are pre-compromised.
China’s population is about 1.4 billion. Conservatively, therefore, we can already expect this plague to kill more people in China than the Black Death did in Europe. At its present velocity we can expect that in about 12 doubling periods, or approximately 60 days.
Meanwhile, coronavirus spread outside China enters a critical time.
Based on what we think we know about the incubation period (about 14 days), if there’s going to be a pandemic breakout outside of China due to asymptomatic carriers, we should start to see a slope change in the overseas incidence curve during the next week. It’s been long enough for that now.
If that doesn’t happen, either the rest of the world dodged the pandemic bullet (optimistic) or the low end of the incubation period is longer than has been thought (pessimistic). On the basis of previous experience with SARS and MERS, I think the optimistic read is more likely to be correct.
Now back to the bioweapon hypothesis. Does recent data strengthen or weaken it? Consider:
* 645 Indian evacuees from Wuhan all tested negative.
* The only death outside China has been an ethnic-Chinese traveler from Wuhan.
The evidence that this virus likes to eat Han Chinese and almost ignores everybody else is mounting. That’s bioweapon-like selectivity.
One of my previous objections to the bioweapon hypothesis was that the Wuhan virus’s lethality wasn’t high enough. At 15% or higher I withdraw that objection.
And that St. Vitus’s Dance thing – coronaviruses don’t do that. But it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d engineer into a terror weapon intended not just to kill a chunk of your target population but break the morale of the rest.
Finally, my friend Phil Salkie tells me that on Google Maps the reported location of the Wuhan Institute of Virology has been jumping around like a Mexican flea. That’s guilty behavior, that is.
UPDATE, 30 DAYS LATER: Now it’s infecting non-Chinese in significant numbers – as I write, about 10K total cases. about half of those in South Korea. The long incubation period and asymptomatic transmoission made it look much more contained over the first month than it was.