A man wearing a protective face mask walks along a street in Wuhan on January 26, 2020. Photo: AFP/Hector Retamal

Appearing to contradict Beijing’s official line that the cadres and the masses “banished” the Covid-19 pandemic from the country by making a common cause, China’s health authorities this week quietly launched an epidemiological survey across the nine regions that have been hit the hardest. 

The survey will examine the antibody levels in communities and provide endemiological and mathematical evidence to improve strategies to prevent a resurgence of the epidemic, according to Xinhua.

But posts circulating on China’s Twitter-like Weibo and forums popular among medical professionals say the real aim is to collect and crunch data from a wide spectrum of samples, in particular those from the initial outbreak epicentre of Wuhan and the rest of Hubei province, to determine the actual size of asymptomatic infection clusters, when risks from covert cases and silent carriers are lurking beneath the surface of a diminution of the respiratory disease.

The survey involves randomly collecting serological samples and throat swabs from residents, irrespective of their health condition, in the nine regions targeted.  

Chinese state media noted that 11,000 residents in Wuhan, a thousandth of its entire population, would be tested to gauge the herd immunity levels in the city now that 46,335 patients there have been been cured and discharged. Investigations in other regions will also produce ballpark estimates of the size of undiagnosed and unreported cases in Beijing and Shanghai as well as in populous provinces like Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Sichuan.

Nationwide data show there are 1,038 infections without evident symptoms as of Friday, 66 more than a day ago, but many believe such cases have been grossly underreported.

Chinese President Xi Jinping during his trip to Wuhan in March, when new cases of the coronavirus start to slow in the city.
Police officer pull away roadblocks at a toll plaza near Wuhan’s city limits before its lockdown ended on April 8. Photos: Xinhua
Passengers remove masks to go though temperature screening and identity checks at a train station in Wuhan. Photo: WeChat via China Pictorial
A convention center in Wuhan used as a makeshift hospital to treat patients with the coronavirus disease is now empty. Photo: Reuters

The latest survey may fuel skepticism about Beijing’s official count of confirmed and cured cases, and is construed by some observers as a tacit admission by Beijing that its decision to pull Wuhan out of a citywide lockdown earlier this month was “premature.”

There was reportedly dissent even among the top pulmonologists and virologists advising the central leadership, as their views diverged on whether lifting Wuhan’s lockdown would release asymptomatic but infectious people back into circulation and again help the virus creep into other regions. Yet top policymakers brushed aside objections and agreed on ending Wuhan’s travel ban and lockout on April 8. 

The top destinations for people pouring out of Wuhan since the city reopened include Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen – top-tier cities that are magnets for graduates and migrant workers from Wuhan and Hubei. Yet there have not been reports about new infection hotspots in Wuhan or elsewhere, almost 10 days after the resumption of traffic and business. 

A Wuhan native who has taken up residence in Guangzhou told Asia Times that he did not think releasing people from the epidemic ground zero would lead to a relapse of the pneumonic plague in other parts of the nation. This is because many in Wuhan, fearful of being infected, had scrambled to get tested once they were allowed to go onto the streets and most of them were given a clean slate. He added that other cities like Guangzhou had been sticking to stringent anti-virus measures such as temperature screening. He said he had had his nucleic acid tested twice this month – first before leaving Wuhan and again upon his return to Guangzhou – and both times he tested negative.  

Papers in Guangzhou also reported that the city would test 10,000 people and compile and submit the data to the National Health Commission as part of the nationwide survey. 

A masked live streamer shoots a sunset along the Yangtze River in Wuhan. The city has been on the move again since it opened earlier this month. Photo: WeChat
People are returning to streets and parks in Wuhan after 11 weeks of citywide lockdown. Photo: WeChat via Southern Metropolis Daily

Wuhan’s newly-installed party chief, Wang Zhonglin, who took office in February after his predecessor was sacked for his botched response to the crisis, promised earlier this week to continue to update the city’s infection figures, track and isolate the close contacts of new infections and share information with other major cities.  

Wang’s pledges were made as the city recorded a 50% jump in the virus death toll to 3,869 on Friday. City officials explained that the abrupt revision was due to many fatal cases throughout the past months being “mistakenly reported, categorized or inadvertently omitted” and that, as Wuhan cadres stress, the adjustment was a bid to enhance transparency as the city reflects on the lessons it has learned in the wake of the Covid-19 scourge. 

China’s efforts to find those who are infected without showing symptoms, as well as to adjust its tallies of infections and mortalities, are also seen as a response to a US government probe ordered into the origin of the highly contagious pathogen. The findings may help ascertain if the virus is indeed synthetic and leaked from a lab in Wuhan, as some have alleged. 

China has said the virus may have cropped up in a Wuhan wet market that butchered exotic wildlife, making the jump from animals to humans. But actions like an epidemiological survey and revising figures may still backfire and entrench the perception that Chinese cadres had sought to make light of the situation in Wuhan and fiddled related statistics in the first place.

Washington’s allies, including London, are also heaping blame on China’s “coverup and deceit,” especially during the onset of the outbreak at the end of last year. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, filling in for Prime Minister Boris Johnson who is recuperating from the virus, told reporters on Thursday that there could be no “business as usual” with China.

“We’ll have to ask the hard questions about how it came about and how it couldn’t have been stopped earlier,” said Raab.

China’s Foreign Ninistry spokesman Zhao Lijian – who previously outraged the US by relaying an unfounded theory that American troops introduced the virus when attending the Military World Games in Wuhan in October – quoted the World Health Organization as saying there was no evidence the virus was produced in a lab.

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