Coronavirus: apart from Wuhan, China’s death rates didn’t rise at start of pandemic, study finds

A new study has found death rates did not rise in China at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, except in the ground-zero city of Wuhan where the outbreak was first reported.

That showed the country had been successful in limiting the spread of the coronavirus, according to researchers from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the University of Oxford.

Their peer-reviewed study – published in The BMJ medical journal on Wednesday – found the death rate in three districts of Wuhan to be 1,147 per 100,000 people in the first three months of 2020.

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That was 56 per cent higher than estimates based on the average death rate between 2015 and 2019, and was chiefly due to an eightfold rise in pneumonia-related deaths.

By contrast, the study found no evidence that death rates had gone up elsewhere in China. Mortality rates from pneumonia – except for those caused by the coronavirus – as well as chronic respiratory illnesses and traffic accidents were lower than predicted. The researchers noted that this coincided closely with China’s nationwide lockdown.

As the outbreak worsened, strict lockdown measures were imposed on Wuhan – a city of 11 million people in the central province of Hubei – from January 23, 2020, with people confined to their homes and transport shut down.

Lockdowns soon followed for tens of millions more people in other parts of Hubei, and by February restrictions were being introduced for other cities and municipalities across China. Wuhan’s lockdown lasted for 76 days.

The researchers analysed official death statistics from China’s Disease Surveillance Points system, which provides data covering more than 300 million people, or more than a fifth of the population.

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They said the lower than expected death rates across China – excluding Wuhan – in the first three months of last year could be related to behavioural changes during lockdown.

“The lockdown and the associated behavioural changes (e.g. wearing face masks, regular handwashing, social distancing, and restricted travel) also seemed to have other unintended health benefits in addition to the intended effects of reducing the spread of Sars-CoV-2,” the paper said, using the scientific name of the coronavirus.

The researchers said the study offered new evidence of the need for a coordinated response during major outbreaks of infectious disease to reduce harm to human health and economic activities.

While the pandemic is largely under control in China, the authorities have been accused of mishandling the initial outbreak and under-reporting the number of virus-related deaths.

A report by Chinese magazine Caixin in March last year suggested that more people in Wuhan might have died than the official figures showed, based on the number of funeral urns delivered to the city. According to official Chinese statistics, about 80 per cent of the country’s Covid-19 deaths were in Wuhan.

An international team of experts and officials from the World Health Organization finished an investigation in Wuhan early this month into the origins of the coronavirus, which China has suggested might not have originated within its borders.

While experts have not dismissed the theory that the virus could have been circulating elsewhere before it was detected in Wuhan in late 2019, critics including the US government have urged China to show more transparency and provide early data on the outbreak. - South China Morning Post

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