The White House’s projection of between 100,000 and 250,000 American deaths from the coronavirus is being called into question as US officials emphasize the lack of reliable data from China.
Members of the White House coronavirus task force unveiled the bleak projection Tuesday, anticipating a peak of US deaths in mid-April that tapers off in early June. administration coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx emphasized factors could influence the trajectory.
Birx said Tuesday that the White House modeling was “based on using very much what’s happened in Italy” and is informed by “five or six international and domestic modelers from Harvard, from Columbia, from Northeastern, from Imperial who helped us tremendously.”
But experts told the Washington Post they don’t know how White House officials arrived at their numbers, which fall between a dire projection of 1.1 million to 2.2 million deaths by UK researchers, depending on social distancing steps, and the 38,000 to 162,000 by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
Coronavirus task force member Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, reportedly said at a task force meeting this week: “I’ve looked at all the models. I’ve spent a lot of time on the models. They don’t tell you anything. You can’t really rely upon models.”
Marc Lipsitch, director of Harvard University’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, told the Post, “They contacted us, I think, on a Tuesday a week ago, and asked for answers and feedback by Thursday, basically 24 hours. My initial response was we can’t do it that fast. But we ended up providing them some numbers responding to very specific scenarios.”
When she unveiled the projection, Birx emphasized that New York and New Jersey have higher per-capita rates of infection than other states, and that preventing large outbreaks elsewhere would influence the ultimate toll.
Questions about the projections come amid reporting that US intelligence agencies informed the White House last week in a report that they believe China undercounted its number of infections and deaths, hindering modeling efforts.
“There’s no way to confirm any of those numbers,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien said Wednesday at a White House briefing.
China publicly disclosed just 82,000 infections and 3,300 deaths since the virus emerged in Wuhan in December. The number is smaller than infections reported by three European countries and the US. Western officials viewed Chinese figures with suspicion from the start. Last week social media images showed vast numbers of funeral urns for cremated bodies in Wuhan.
As of Friday, 245,000 Americans have confirmed infections and more than 6,000 have died.
US spy agencies “have concluded that the Chinese government itself does not know the extent of the virus and is as blind as the rest of the world,” the New York Times reports, citing intelligence officials. “Midlevel bureaucrats in the city of Wuhan … and elsewhere in China have been lying about infection rates, testing and death counts, fearful that if they report numbers that are too high they will be punished, lose their position or worse.”