The true number of coronavirus fatalities in China could be 14 times more than the government has declared, a new study has found.
Official statistics based on the number of cremations suggest the Chinese government has massively downplayed the number of lives lost to the disease, US researchers found.
The deadly Covid-19 virus – which has claimed nearly 450,000 lives around the world – is believed to have originated in a market in the city of Wuhan.
A study published on medRxiv found that between 800 and 2,000 cremations were being held each day by the second week of February.
Official statistics paint a different picture – by that time the confirmed death toll across the whole of China was around 700.
During that period, there were reports that 86 crematoriums in the city were operating 24 hours a day.
Normally they would be open just four days, it is believed.
Researchers from the University of Washington, Ohio State University and US communications company AT&T, also became suspicious after learning of reports that thousands of urns were being purchased by funeral homes.
In Wuhan alone, it is estimated that 36,000 people had died by March 23 – although at the time the official death toll was 2,524.
China’s death toll currently stands at 4,634, with 83,265 confirmed cases.
Researchers, led by Washington-based Dr Mai He, wrote: “The estimates of cumulative deaths, based on both funeral urns distribution and continuous full capacity operation of cremation services up to March 23, 2020, give results around 36,000, more than 10 times the official death toll of 2,524.
“Our study indicates a significant under-reporting in Chinese official data on the Covid-19 epidemic in Wuhan in early February, the critical time for response to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Researchers suggest that China has not been transparent about the impact coronavirus had following the outbreak.
Dr He wrote: “Potential Covid-19 related death counts from urn distribution for Wuhan could be 35,708 for seven funeral houses.
“This is consistent with our linear estimate of 36,720, based on the cremation service operation.”
But researchers admitted this could be a significant underestimate.