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COVID-19 cases from Wuhan: What the early data tell us

Ever wonder why people say that 80% of COVID-19 cases are expected to be mild or moderate? Take a look at the early figures from China’s outbreak that are shaping how the world thinks about the new virus.

Resource details:

Publication title: The Epidemiological Characteristics of an Outbreak of 2019 Novel Coronavirus Diseases (COVID-19) — China, 2020

Author(s): The Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia Emergency Response Epidemiology Team

Publication date: 2020

What the research report is about:

In late 2019, an outbreak of the new coronavirus dubbed SARS-Cov-2 emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. This study looks at about 72 000 patient records, including almost 45 000 cases of COVID-19 in China.  Data was collected between December 31, 2019 and February 11, 2020 and includes all COVID-19 cases reported in the country until that time. The research report provides an insightful first look at the novel outbreak.

Key take-aways from the research report:

Key factors considered in the study:

  • Patient characteristics — this includes demographic information such as the patient’s age and sex along with their occupation. If patients worked in a health facility they were considered health workers. 
  • Pre-existing conditions — patients were asked to self report whether they had any pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure. 
  • Wuhan-related exposure — if the patient, or someone they were in close contact with, lived in or had recently visited the city, they were coded as having Wuhan-related exposure to the virus. 
  • Case severity — the study characterised symptoms as mild, severe or critical. Mild cases included symptoms of mild pneumonia. Shortness of breath was associated with severe cases of the disease. Critical cases of COVID-19 included symptoms ranging from respiratory failure and organ failure to septic shock.

Some of the study’s key findings:

  • The study’s authors found that early cases of COVID-19 suggested that the disease was less severe than other coronaviruses such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). 
  • Unlike SARS and MERS, however, the new coronavirus appeared to be more contagious — with a city-wide outbreak mushrooming to a national outbreak in about 30 days, despite the “extreme response measures” undertaken to quell it, the authors note. 
  • Healthcare workers were exposed to the virus largely within healthcare facilities and this study highlights 1 716 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among health workers.

Important caveats to take note of:

  • The study doesn’t highlight whether patients with pre-existing conditions had more than one.
  • Furthermore, some patients’ records had missing information, including whether they had any connection to Wuhan, underlying health conditions or how serious their case of COVID-19 had been.

You can find and download the report here.

[Please note: Visit for updates on South Africa’s coronavirus response.]

Gopolang Makou was the impact and engagement officer at Bhekisisa.