Time to put conspiracy theories into a burial urn

In the past, I’ve criticized claims that 40,000 Wuhan residents died of Covid19, roughly 16 times the official total. While the official total undoubtedly missed some cases, I find it implausible (but not impossible) that it was that far off.

Most experts believe the actual mortality rate from coronavirus is around 1%, or perhaps 2% at most, if one accounts for all the mild cases that are never tested. And unlike Italy, Wuhan does not have a large population over age 70.  So the claim that Wuhan had 40,000 deaths is equivalent to a claim that it had 2 to 4 million cases, in a city of 11 million.

A new study of the genetic makeup of numerous Covid19 viruses, suggests that as of February 8 the entire world had about 55,800 cases, with a 95% confidence interval around 17,500 and 194,400:

Here, we use a phylodynamic approach incorporating 53 publicly available novel coronavirus (nCoV) genomes to the estimate underlying incidence and prevalence of the epidemic. This approach uses estimates of the rate of coalescence through time to infer underlying viral population size and then uses assumptions of serial interval and heterogeneity of transmission to provide estimates of incidence and prevalence. We estimate an exponential doubling time of 7.2 (95% CI 5.0-12.9) days. We arrive at a median estimate of the total cumulative number of worldwide infections as of Feb 8, 2020, of 55,800 with a 95% uncertainty interval of 17,500 to 194,400. Importantly, this approach uses genome data from local and international cases and does not rely on case reporting within China.

February 8th was roughly half way through the Chinese epidemic, with 37,198 reported cases.  However, on February 12 China changed its reporting methods and the official caseload jumped sharply.  Thus we can infer that even as early as February 8th the caseload was higher than reported, at least 40,000.

Of course there were also many cases that had not been tested, so there could easily have been 80,000 or 120,000 cases by that day.  But given that the entire world likely had no more than 200,000 cases on February 8, and given that China was roughly half way through its epidemic by that time, it seems very unlikely that Wuhan ever had 2 to 4 million cases.  And if you want to argue that the Chinese underreporting occurred after February 8th, you run into all sorts of problems.  There is very clear evidence that the epidemic slowed sharply in China in mid-February.  And as mentioned above, on February 12 the reported caseload in China jumped sharply as the government attempted to make the figures more accurate.

The estimate of 40,000 deaths was based on the number of burial urns being order by Wuhan mortuaries.  Unless someone can discredit this paper, I’ll go with the phylodynamic approach to virus evolution as being more accurate than counting burial urns.

It’s fine to hate and distrust the Chinese government; I do as well.  But that’s no excuse for not confronting reality.  If China got the epidemic under control, we need to know that.  Even more importantly, we need to know how democratic countries in East Asia got their epidemics under control without shutting down their entire economies.

HT: Razib Khan



13 Responses to “Time to put conspiracy theories into a burial urn”

  1. Gravatar of P Burgos P Burgos
    5. April 2020 at 13:13

    How many people died in Wuhan in February and March of 2018 and 2019? How many died this year? The Chinese authorities could put these rumors of underreported deaths to bed very quickly by publishing those numbers.

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    5. April 2020 at 13:18

    I seem to recall reading that about 20,000 die each month, but am not certain. That number seems a bit high.

  3. Gravatar of Scott H. Scott H.
    5. April 2020 at 15:27

    Urn purchases and cellphone customer list culls are not compelling evidence. Reminds me of the time the Obama admin was planning on killing millions of Americans when Homeland Security ordered all those bullets.

  4. Gravatar of LC LC
    5. April 2020 at 17:16


    I came across something that’s rather amusing (at least to me) today. In a Wechat interview purported to have been given by Dr. Zhang Wenhong, the famed infectious disease doctor in Shanghai, he crossed over into economics. He gave 10 suggestions to people on how to handle the next phase when economy reboots. Among his suggestions are 1.) full throttle deregulation to allow new enterprises and industries to develop 2.) stay away from social media because they fan so much hatred. Instead, read more Hayek and Drucker.

    This is especially amusing because Dr. Zhang is himself a member of CCP and gained fame because he ordered all CCP doctors to the front line in the Covid 19 crisis early on.

    It’s perhaps a small sign in a rapidly changing world.

  5. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    5. April 2020 at 18:02


    It is really interesting to think about how the world will change after this. Has there been an event that changed the day to day lives of almost everyone on Earth in recent memory? Does WWII even count?

    This is a big deal on so many levels. Things are going to be different in various ways.

    And even the economics…this is like a thought experiment in real life: what would happen if the world voluntarily shut down much of its economic activity for a couple of months?

  6. Gravatar of Matthias Görgens Matthias Görgens
    5. April 2020 at 18:44

    LC, no clue whether the interview you report legitimately happened? But: the part of the CCP that follows in the footsteps of Deng Xiaoping can be surprisingly pragmatic.

    Scott, perhaps the urns were just panic buying?

  7. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    5. April 2020 at 19:04


    I agree.

    The CCP would lie about anything and everything if there was an advantage in doing so and they thought they could get away it.


    If the numbers were way off it would be hard to hide.

    There is not much advantage in merely shaving the numbers by a smallish percent.

    Bureaucratic incompetence or systemic problems in the reporting system could result in somewhat significant reporting problems.

    Given the draconian isolation measures, a significant number of people might have chosen to stay at home, some percentage of which eventually died and the cause of death was not conclusively known.

    When normalized for age (and maybe TB vaccinations), Chinese and Italian mortality rates are not wildly inconsistent.

  8. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    6. April 2020 at 09:32

    Everyone, Good points.

  9. Gravatar of LC LC
    6. April 2020 at 11:15

    @Matthias, I haven’t seen a video or audio recording of the interview, so I can’t prove it happened. Some of the wording and the style of communication sound like something Dr. Zhang might say.

    @msgkings, yes, the world will be different. Many pundits and economists have tried to predict what the changes will be but my feeling is they’re just guessing. We (the public) need to remember that sometimes events happen out of our sense of control and we have no real time understanding of their impact.

  10. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    6. April 2020 at 18:36

    Okay, nobody criticized the entry and the study, so I guess I have to do it again.

    1) To use the term “worldwide” is very obfuscating, at this point the figures speak of about 300 cases outside of China. So the extrapolation is about China, in other words mostly about Wuhan.

    2) I find the interval ridiculous, 17,500 to 194,400 cases? You might as well have a monkey throw darts. It would be essential to know whether there were only 30,000 cases in Wuhan at that time or 300,000. There is a big difference.

    3) Even these figures are only correct if all the basic assumptions of the study are correct, as the authors themselves say. So it’s even worse than a monkey throwing darts. We don’t even know who is throwing, what is being thrown, and what the board is.

    4) Counting the number of infections is the wrong approach anyway. The uncertainties are too great. Hard dead bodies are the easiest to count, and here Wuhan is still very suspicious.

    5) The only good argument so far why Wuhan’s figures do not match NYC, Lombardy, Madrid are age differences in the populations. That would be a logical answer (besides cover-ups). But that’s just a guess, I haven’t seen a study that has really calculated this exactly. I think we will have to wait for that, I hope it will be done seriously as soon as the time is right.

    6. April 2020 at 19:33

    Then the Wuhan people are F*CKING ANIMALS


    Hubei province opened its borders ending restrictions on outbound traffic as it recorded no new cases of the killer bug on Wednesday.

    In Wuhan, the first epicentre of the crisis, 117 bus routes began operating this week – around 30 per cent of its capacity – while the lockdown on the city’s outbound traffic will be lifted on April 8.

    But there is now widespread hostility in China towards people from Hubei, the province where the coronavirus crisis is believed to have started.

    Migrant workers from Hubei have tried to move to other parts of China, but have been barred from entering Beijing, it is reported.

    The official death toll for Wuhan issued by the Chinese government is just 2,535 people from 50,006 coronavirus infections.”

    So either the Wuhan people are unable to handle a tiny death count and the heavy Chicom hand


    the death count and the bomb the roads mindset success of China ARE BULLSHIT


    Scott we’re going to break CCP, China is going to lose so much face, no 3rd world country will ever try and hide it’s failures again.

    Why are you so defensive?

    The Chinese people are good folks when they RIOT over the Economy / Health outcomes, it’s BECAUSE they are worse than other places.

    The Chinese are not soft beat boys wimps Scott.

  12. Gravatar of Mark C Mark C
    7. April 2020 at 01:33

    “I seem to recall reading that about 20,000 die each month, but am not certain. That number seems a bit high.”

    According to World Bank data, China’s crude death rate is around 7.11 per 1,000 population for 2017.

    Using this number, Wuhan has around 11 million people so annual number of death is around 78,000. Wuhan lockdown started on 23 Jan, but the crematory would have been closed for a week by then due to Chinese New Year. So it would have closed around 11 weeks. During this time, the number of Wuhan citizen passing away should be 11/52*78,000 = 16,500.

    Add that to the 3,000 coronavirus victims in Wuahn and you are looking at 20,000 people throughout the duration of lockdown.

    Other than that, a few things need to take into considerations:
    1. Not everyone cremate their loved ones.
    2. You don’t know how often crematories order the urns, is it quaterly? monthly? My guess is once every few months is more likely, so they might have placed an order that’s enough to cater for a few months of demand.

  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    7. April 2020 at 09:58

    Christian, What difference does it matter how wide the 95% confidence interval is if the entire interval is far outside the conspiracy theory point estimates. Your comment makes no sense.

    Thanks Mark, That sounds right. I relied on this inaccurate info:


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