Documents are leaked from Chinese health officials who estimate that there were 250 million covid infections in December

(CNN) — Nearly 250 million people in China may have contracted covid-19 in the first 20 days of December, according to an internal estimate from the nation’s top health officials reported Friday by Bloomberg News and the Financial Times.

If the estimate is correct — something CNN cannot independently confirm — it would account for about 18% of China’s 1.4 billion people and represent the largest Covid-19 outbreak to date worldwide.

The cited figures were presented during an internal meeting of China’s National Health Commission (NHC) on Wednesday, according to both outlets, citing sources familiar with the matter or involved in the discussions. The NHC’s summary of the meeting on Wednesday said it delved into the treatment of patients affected by the new outbreak.

On Friday, a copy of what were supposed to be the NHC meeting notes was posted on Chinese social media. However, the authenticity of the document was not verified by CNN and the NHC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Both the Financial Times and Bloomberg exposed in great detail the authorities’ discussions about how to handle the outbreak.

Among the estimates cited in both reports was the revelation that on Tuesday alone, 37 million people were recently infected with covid-19 across China. That contrasts dramatically with the official number of 3,049 new infections reported that day.

China prepares for a new wave of covid-19

The Financial Times said it was Sun Yang, deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who presented the figures to officials during the closed-door briefing, citing two people familiar with the matter.

Sun explained that the rate of spread of covid in China was still increasing and estimated that more than half of the population in Beijing and Sichuan was already infected, according to the Financial Times.

The estimates follow China’s decision in early December to abruptly dismantle its strict zero-Covid policy that had been in place for nearly three years.

All of those figures stand in stark contrast to public data from the NHC, which reported just 62,592 symptomatic cases of covid in the first twenty days of December.

How the NHC arrived at the estimates cited by Bloomberg and the Financial Times is unknown, as China has no official record of its total number of infections, after authorities shut down its nationwide network of PCR testing booths and said that they would stop collecting data on asymptomatic cases.

People in China now also use rapid antigen tests to detect infections and are not required to report positive results.

Officially, China has reported just eight Covid deaths this month, a surprisingly low number given the rapid spread of the virus and relatively low rates of booster vaccinations among the elderly.

A health worker tests for COVID-19 in Shanghai on December 19, 2022.

Only 42.3% of people over the age of 80 in China received a third dose of the vaccine, according to a CNN calculation of new figures released by the NHC on December 14.

Before him growing skepticism On reported covid deaths, the Chinese government defended the accuracy of its official count by revealing that it had 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, said at a press conference on Tuesday.

The minutes of Wednesday’s closed-door NHC meeting made no reference to discussions about how many people might have died in China, according to both reports and the document seen by CNN.

“The numbers seem plausible, but I don’t have other data sources to compare them to. If the estimated infection numbers mentioned here are accurate, it means the national cap will occur within the next week,” Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong, told CNN in an emailed statement, when he asked about the alleged NHC estimates.

With information from Mengchen Zhang

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