The novel coronavirus – now called COVID-19 – has infected more than 66,900 people worldwide and caused at least 1,523 deaths.
On Thursday, Chinese authorities reported 15,152 new cases of the disease overnight. A majority of those cases were identified in Hubei province, the epicenter of the disease, after health officials changed the way the virus was diagnosed.
Cases of the virus are now being confirmed based on symptoms and CT scans rather than time-consuming nucleic acid tests, creating a more accurate number but confirming that previous totals were wrong.
The change was “extremely necessary,” says Wang Chen, president of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences. “Many patients who appeared to be [infected] based on their epidemiological history, contact history, and clinical symptoms were not able to test positive on the nucleic acid test and were listed as ‘suspected cases.’”
The initial requirements for confirming COVID-19 cases were hidden from the public.
“The diagnostic criteria were too harsh – with that criteria, it would be very difficult to diagnose anyone,” says Peng Zhiyong, an intensive care unit doctor in Wuhan. “This makes it very easy to miss real patients…This is an infectious disease. If the diagnostic criteria are too tight, the sick people we let go will be a great risk to society.”
To make matters worse, Chinese officials have been accused of underreporting the true nature of the disease and the number of cases. Numerous patients say they were turned away from hospitals without a diagnosis. Experts believe a large number of mild infections were never counted.
“The picture is evolving day by day…it is a constantly moving target,” says pathologist John Nicholls. “We really have got no idea about the true number of cases.
In addition to sickness, death, and quarantine, COVID-19 has caused a noticeable slump in Chinese auto and smartphone sales as well as a decline in travel to the Asia-Pacific region. Global oil demand is projected to see its first quarterly decrease in more than 10 years.
On Thursday, Beijing abruptly fired several political leaders in Hubei and replaced them with individuals known for “stability maintenance.” Unsurprisingly, the new hires are allies of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In the meantime, the CDC is preparing for the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. “At some point, we are likely to see community spread in the US or in the countries,” says CDC Doctor Nancy Messonnier. “This will trigger a change in our response strategy.”