How accurate are China’s COVID-19 death numbers?

China’s National Health Commission did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the country’s COVID statistics and excess mortality.

Even if China were to continue defining COVID deaths more broadly, the official data is still unlikely to reflect the situation on the ground, given how quickly infections are now spreading, said Chen Jiming, a medical researcher at China’s Foshan University.

“The reported counts of cases and deaths are only a very small portion of the true values,” he said.

Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, said the official death tally would be very low even if a broader definition were in use, “because so little testing is being done” now that China has discontinued mass surveillance.

On the other hand, Cowling said, labeling every person who died while positive for COVID as having died from the disease could lead to an over-count. Such an approach “can also be criticised because it can, and has, included coincidental deaths such as in people hit by a bus while having mild COVID.”

Dr Mai He, a pathologist at Washington University in St. Louis who was involved in the Wuhan study published in 2020, said there was still a lack of faith in the integrity of China’s numbers.

“The persistent critical issue is a lack of transparency; people cannot use their data to do research and analysis, (or) provide guidance for the next step,” he told Reuters. 

The lack of trust in China’s statistics is also causing panic among members of the public, said Victoria Fan, senior fellow in global health at the Center for Global Development.

“It’s in the best interest of the government to be more transparent,  because a lot of the behaviors that the public is exhibiting is because they don’t have information,” she said.