Almost 250 million people in China may have caught Covid-19 in the first 20 days of December, according to an internal estimate by the nation’s top health officials, Bloomberg News and the Financial Times reported on Friday.
If true, the estimate — which CNN could not independently confirm — would represent roughly 18 percent of China’s 1.4 billion people and represent the largest-ever global outbreak of Covid-19.
The quoted figures were presented during an internal meeting of China’s National Health Commission (NHC) on Wednesday, according to the two outlets – which cited sources familiar with the matter or involved in the discussions. The NHC’s summary of Wednesday’s meeting said it was deepening the treatment of patients affected by the new outbreak.
On Friday, a copy of 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 have detailed the authorities’ discussions about how to deal with the outbreak.
Among the estimates cited in the two reports was the revelation that on Tuesday alone, 37 million people were newly infected with Covid-19 in China. This was in dramatic contrast to the official count of 3,049 new infections reported that day.
The Financial Times said Sun Yang – deputy director of China’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – presented the figures to officials during a closed-door 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 are already infected, according to the Financial Times.
The assessments follow China’s decision in early December to suddenly dismantle its strict zero-Covid policy that had been in place for almost three years.
The figures are in stark contrast to the NHC’s public figures, 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 reports its total number of infections after authorities shut down its national network of PCR testing booths and said they would stop collecting data for asymptomatic cases.
People in China also use rapid antigen tests to detect infections and are not required to report positive results.
Officially, China has only reported eight deaths from Covid this month – a strikingly low figure given the rapid spread of the virus and relatively low levels of booster shots among the elderly.
Only 42.3 percent of people 80 and older in China have received a third dose of the vaccine, according to CNN’s calculation of new data released by the NHC on Dec. 14.
Facing growing skepticism that it is downplaying Covid deaths, the Chinese government has defended the accuracy of its official tally, revealing it has updated its method of counting deaths caused by the virus.
According to the latest NHC guidelines, only deaths caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure after contracting the virus are classified as Covid deaths, Wang Guiqiang, a leading infectious disease doctor, told a press conference on Tuesday.
Minutes from the NHC’s closed-door meeting on Wednesday made no mention of any discussion of how many people may have died in China, according to the two reports and the document reviewed by CNN.
“The numbers seem plausible, but I have no other sources of data to compare [them] s. If the estimated infection numbers mentioned here are accurate, it means that the nationwide peak will occur within the next week,” Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong, said in an emailed statement to CNN. asked about the NHC’s supposed estimates.