TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — As many experts question the veracity of China's statistics for the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, Tencent over the weekend appeared to inadvertently release what is potentially the actual number of infections and deaths — which are far higher than official figures, but eerily in line with predictions from a respected scientific journal.
As early as Jan. 26, netizens were reporting that Tencent, on its webpage titled "Epidemic Situation Tracker," briefly showed data on the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in China that was much higher than official estimates, before suddenly switching to lower numbers. Hiroki Lo, a 38-year-old Taiwanese beverage store owner, that day reported that Tencent and NetEase were both posting "unmodified statistics," before switching to official numbers in short order.
Lo told Taiwan News than on Jan. 26 he checked the numbers on both Tencent and NetEase and found them "really scary." He said he did not know whether the numbers were real or not, but did not have much time to think about it as he had a busy day of work ahead at his store.
Lo said he did not check the numbers again until he went home that evening, when he was shocked to see they had dropped dramatically and "something was wrong." He said he noticed individuals on a Hong Kong Facebook group also observed the same bizarre occurrence that day.
On late Saturday evening (Feb. 1), the Tencent webpage showed confirmed cases of the Wuhan virus in China as standing at 154,023, 10 times the official figure at the time. It listed the number of suspected cases as 79,808, four times the official figure.
The number of cured cases was only 269, well below the official number that day of 300. Most ominously, the death toll listed was 24,589, vastly higher than the 300 officially listed that day.
Moments later, Tencent updated the numbers to reflect the government's "official" numbers that day. Netizens noticed that Tencent has on at least three occasions posted extremely high numbers, only to quickly lower them to government-approved statistics.
Feb. 1 chart showing higher numbers (left), chart showing "official" numbers (right). (Internet image)
Netizens also noticed that each time the screen with the large numbers appears, a comparison with the previous day's data appears above, which demonstrates a "reasonable" incremental increase, much like the official numbers. This has led some netizens to speculate that Tencent has two sets of data, the real data and "processed" data.
Some are speculating that a coding problem could be causing the real "internal" data to accidentally appear. Others believe that someone behind the scenes is trying to leak the real numbers.
However, the "internal" data held by Beijing may not reflect the true extent of the epidemic. According to multiple sources in Wuhan, many coronavirus patients are unable to receive treatment and die outside of hospitals.
A severe shortage of test kits also leads to a lower number of diagnosed cases of infection and death. In addition, there have been many reports of doctors being ordered to list other forms of death instead of coronavirus to keep the death toll artificially low.
Although some are chalking up the images to users tampering with their browsers, the 154,023 infections on Feb. 1 are remarkably close to the estimate predicted on that date by a scientific modeling study carried out by the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and published on The Lancet website. The study estimates the number of cases is much more given the 2.68 spread rate per case, the doubling of total infections every 6.4 days, and known travel patterns in China and worldwide.
The study stated that by Jan. 25, there were likely already 75,815 people infected with the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in Wuhan. This number for January far exceeds the number of 28,000 given by the government on Feb. 6.
As the report estimated over 75,000 cases on Jan. 25, and the Feb. 1 post was seven days later, the number of cases in Wuhan alone, according to the model, should have reached 150,000, uncannily close to the 154,023 listed for all of China on the Tencent page. With nearly 12 days having passed since the report was released, the model predicts the number of infections in Wuhan could now stand at 300,000.
Another strange phenomenon that netizens have noticed is the mortality rate, as the government death tolls are routinely maintaining an exact percentile for days on end. Many noticed that in the early days of reporting, the government put the death rate at 3.1 percent.
Jan. 22: 17 deaths / 542 infections = 3.1 percent
Jan. 23: 26 deaths / 830 infections = 3.1 percent
Jan. 24: 41 deaths / 1,287 infections = 3.1 percent
By late January, the government apparently decided to set the new official mortality rate at 2.1 percent. As can be seen in the image below, the mortality rate was kept at a precise 2.1 percent, regardless of the numbers from Jan. 30 to Feb. 3:
The mortality rates for the numbers briefly shown on Tencent are much higher. The death rate for Jan. 26 was 2,577 deaths out of 15,701 infections, or 16 percent.
The death rate for the Feb. 1 post was 24,589 deaths out of 154,023 infections, which also comes out to 16 percent. The death rates briefly shown are clearly vastly higher than the official percentages and substantially higher than SARS at 9.6 percent, but lower than MERS at 34.5 percent.
Update: 02/07 6:00 p.m.
In response to this report, Tencent issued the following statement:
"The Tencent News “Epidemic Situation Tracker” reports real-time data from China' s National Health Commission and various Municipal Health Commissions across China.
It is one of several Tencent initiatives, including "Tencent Health" and "Rumour Filter", that keep users informed and up to date on new developments relating to the novel Coronavirus epidemic and check on hearsay versus fact shared by over 170 authoritative information sources across China.
Unfortunately, several social media sources have circulated doctored images of our “Epidemic Situation Tracker” featuring false information which we never published.
Tencent uses technology for good and is disappointed with this type of unscrupulous behavior. Tencent does not condone the dissemination of inaccurate information and fake news especially during this sensitive period.
We reserve all legal rights and remedies in this matter and urge those misusing our services to immediately cease the manufacture and proliferation of false information."
However, a Taiwanese netizen, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed to Taiwan News on Feb. 7 that he too had witnessed the much higher numbers on the Tencent page at 3:30 a.m. Taipei time on Jan. 26. He said that when he checked the webpage again the next day, he noticed the figures had been substantially lowered.