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China's decision to exclude people without symptoms from its official coronavirus count not only raises questions about the actual number of infections but also puts its own citizens at risk as the country races to restart its economy amid the pandemic.
Public concerns about the dangers of infection by asymptomatic carriers has grown in recent days, as Beijing began to relax restrictions on its public transportation and businesses.
In Wuhan, a city in central China largely believed to be where the virus originated, local authorities were forced to defend their decision not to report certain cases following a story in Caixin magazine that claimed Chinese officials were still finding asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 daily, despite reporting drops in their numbers to indicate China was on its way to beating the coronavirus.
Though authorities in Wuhan have shrugged off complaints it wasn't accurate in its reporting, Chang Jile, a Chinese health official, said the country would start reporting the number of people who aren't showing symptoms of COVID-19 beginning Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported.
"It's OK if they aren't included in the tally of confirmed cases," Zeng Guang, the chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told a state-run magazine.
Symptoms of the coronavirus include fever, tiredness, dry cough, runny nose, sore throat, nasal congestion as well as body aches, the World Health Organization said. Of the people who get COVID-19, about 80 percent experience a mild case, similar to a cold, and recover without needing hospitalization.
The problem with not including asymptomatic patients in the official tally is that there is not enough scientific data to show what kind of impact these patients have.
The Wall Street Journal reported that scientists in Italy who traced 6,000 infections around Lombardy, the epicenter of the country's contagion, found nasal swabs of asymptomatic carriers had similar amounts of virus on them as those with symptoms with COVID-19, which would make them as contagious as people showing classic symptoms.
However, according to a prepublication draft seen by the paper, a small number of asymptomatic cases turned up in contact tracing, which might mean carriers play a lesser role in spreading the novel coronavirus.
With so little testing on a topic that is relatively new, scientists say it is imperative that countries like China and the United States be as transparent as possible when reporting their cases of COVID-19.
As of Tuesday, the United States topped the list of countries around the world with the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases at 164,610. Italy came in second with 101,739, followed by Spain with 94,417 cases and China which reported 82,272 cases.