Air Travel Data Suggests China Had Nearly 40 Times The COVID-19 Cases They Reported

China reports a total of fewer than 85,000 confirmed cases and 4641 deaths from COVID-19. However there’s been a lot of skepticism about the numbers China has reported dating to early stages of the virus. Some of this is that China has only included symptomatic cases in their confirmed infection counts and doesn’t report multiple causes of death, and the most vulnerable COVID patients have confounding conditions.

There were reports of 40,000 excess urns being delivered to funeral homes in Wuhan. Another estimate is 26,000 Wuhan deaths from COVID-19.

Now a RAND Corporation study looks at travel patterns to estimate “China’s reported COVID-19 caseload was undercounted by a factor of nearly 40.”

  • If you believe Chinese infection data, and air passenger data, then on average you’d expect a total of one COVID-positive person to have traveled abroad to either Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, and the United States by January 22.

  • But the virus was spreading in all of these countries at that point.

    If there were an average of 172 total cases per day in China through January 22, 2020, the odds of Japan and Taiwan importing even one case by that date would be 9 percent each. The odds of Japan, Thailand, South Korea, the United States, and Taiwan all reporting cases would be only one in 1.3 million.

  • To have an even (50/50) chance of COVID spreading to all five countries, as it had by January 22, you’d need an infection rate 37 times greater than China officially reports.

Credit: Rand Corporation

Air travelers may not be representative of residents overall, and it’s worth noting that U.S. infection rates are likely 10 times confirmed cases too. Still, it’s worthwhile perspective.

Perhaps Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson is wrong about how well China’s authoritarian system performs containing virus spread?

(HT: Greg R.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »



  1. No one trusts China.

    Between under reporting cases and deaths, silencing Doctors who tried to warn others, hindering WHO access, banning the press from Wuhan, organ harvesting from prisoners, Muslim detention centers, Hong Kong crackdown …. the list is endless!

    Their reputation around the world is in the toilet!

  2. hmmm… lets see who financed this study.

    It is financed by the U.S. government and private endowment, corporations.

  3. @ Alan: “Red China Always Lies to save face.” Funny – I can name someone else who’s a big fan of red and also always lies to save face.

    At this point – China’s lying at the beginning of this is a question for the history books. Let’s talk about our leadership’s ongoing total and complete failure to deal with the virus

  4. NY Times today (Saturday)-Massive numbers of asymptomatic/non-symptomatic individuals responsible for the rapid spread of the virus. The CDC and others discounted this possibility until very recently.

  5. @Actually Bob
    Yes, but it’s not EITHER/OR….it’s BOTH, and therein we have the perfect storm….
    Two peas in a pod.

  6. The study coming from RAND needs peer review to see if the modeling and assumptions were accurate since it is coming from RAND. But nobody who has paid any attention to this virus trusts the numbers being reported out of China…just like we don’t trust the numbers coming out of Russia or Iran. So that RAND is saying could be accurate.

  7. I don’t trust the numbers from China … and I don’t trust the ones coming out of say Florida, either. But leaving that aside, this study is bunk. They basically assume infection rates were the same everywhere in China and everyone in China is equally likely to get on a plane to South Korea, the U.S., or wherever. Let’s take Europe: Italy had much higher rates of infection than Germany, but if you only look at Europe as a whole, you could similarly look at the travel figures from Europe the U.S. and conclude Europe must have vastly under-reported coronavirus infections. Again, there’s almost certainly some level of under-reporting everywhere, but this methodology wouldn’t pass muster in Statistics 101.

  8. Okay, let’s agree that the RAND Corporation is probably correct. That bumps China’s infection rate from 58/million to 2320/million. Further, based on serological testing, it appears that the US is underreporting infection rates by a factor of 10 (not through malevolence, just a lack of testing). That bumps the US infection rate from 7774/million to 77740/million. The numbers change, the ratio changes, but the conclusion of mismanagement of the crisis in the US does not change even slightly. To reach the levels of mismanagement of the US, the Chinese would have to be underreporting by a factor of 1340 times (again, assuming that the US is underreporting by a factor of 10). I haven’t see anyone suggest that this is evenly remotely the case.
    To look at another example, Canada has about a third the infection rate of the US. Canada also has a positive test ratio of about 0.9% of tests, US has about 6% of tests, so Canadian likely is underreporting infections at about 1/7 the rate that the US is, so likely has an actual infection rate about 1/20 of the US. Both countries received the same warnings at the same times. The US “shut their borders” to the Chinese long before Canada did (Canada followed the WHO recommendations quite closely). Canada has an older population than the US. Canada has a more densely urban population than the US (the three largest Canadian cities have roughly 35% of the Canadian population, the three largest US cities have about 17%). Pretty much every factor would suggest that Canada should have performed worse than the US, yet the US has likely performed about 20 times worse.
    Chinese malfeasance may be a threat to the world, but not nearly the threat that US incompetence is.

  9. Just another article from a China-bashing mouthpiece.
    EU definitely trusts the numbers and efforts coming from China than from the US. Just take a look at their travel ban list. Americans are feeling butt-hurt right now.

  10. lol…butt-hurt so much that they fund “studies” to safe face.

    Stay home America – the world is safer without you.

  11. 1) am not a Chinese National but live in China like now – far away from ground zero
    2) even so far, everyone have to wear surgical mask since 24th Jan till today – not made of cloth or whatever – and I guess will be till end of 2020
    – in the beginning it is required to replace every 4 hours, now, being relaxed to once a day
    – this is being enforced to the extent that 2 fatal cases reported due to wearing masking while jogging
    3) tests is available at less than 100 USD to walk in and result is out in a day or so

    Back to the study – how many of such practice is in place in counties that are being compared with? How many have 1:1 policy and political will to complete shutdown the country when the thing spreads?

    My conclusion – report is not comparing apple to apple. And I suggest not to look down on how united and corporative the Chinese can be when crises happened.

    Ps: I don’t think the government is perfect and the number definitely is toned down, the situation is, it is more or less contained as I can see.

    I work in a MNC that employs some 10k Chinese and not a single family is being infected – and finger crossed on keeping that way.

    I have a feeling this will get alot of heat – but if you have chance after this covid-19, come to China, make some Chinese friends, ask them to tell you their story before simply saying, oh, China is evil.
    This does not help China not other countries.

  12. Titus is obviously a Wu Mao. For you guys that don’t know. That is a paid internet troll by the Chinese Communist government. Millions of them on internet. Post something criticizing the CCP on youtube and you will get tons of them.

  13. What??? China lied???? Gee who could have seen that coming. The saddest part of this is our president took the word of Chinese leaders over that of our intelligence communities when China claimed they were getting it under control. Any educated person would know the Chinese government has a history of lying about exactly these type of things.

  14. So we have two apparently Chinese-paid trolls in this conversation. No one with any sophistication trusts official Chinese numbers. Isn’t the real issue on Chinese infection rates for the EU, not us? The EU are planning to allow in Chinese tourists, based on the reported present low infection rates, which they probably know are phony. The EU will exclude US-based travelers, because our honest but inept national rate is too high. Probably not fair, because the USA is most of a continent, with geographically varied levels of infection. Wouldn’t it be great if my wife and I could visit our French family because the EU could trust putting US citizens on an honor system, like “I am from state _____, where our infection rate is lower than your exclusionary floor number.” But, based on Gary’s anecdotes of flyers who live their own realities, you can’t really trust our flyers on an honor system, can you?

  15. Alan, also, if we didn’t spend the last three years burning every single bridge we could, the EU would be a little more sympathetic. Instead they’re going on to live without us in any way possible.

  16. Check out this documentary by a Japanese director recorded in Wuhan, China: I believe the local government did try to cover up the real case number but the steps they used to control the spread did worked. The documentary shows people uses an app to scan a QR code on the restaurant door before they can enter, the app will show if and when you have been tested negative and healthy.

  17. Assuming they’re right, they’re proving that the Chinese missed the initial spread of COVID just like the US (and Italy) did? Like, nobody actually knew this?

    The only difference is that for China SARS-Cov-2 was something new, while for the US it wasn’t. The US catastrophically missed COVID long after its entire genetic sequence (DNA) was published on the Internet by the Fudan University in Shanghai on 12 January and reposted the following day by the US’s NCBI.

    By comparison, on 8 February Singapore shipped 10,000 test kits to China (they didn’t have enough) that worked

    The amount of damaging information in the US is astonishing. When is it going to get serious about the war on the virus as opposed to partisan politics that sets it back to the middle ages and that are allowing China to win?

  18. Titus: I certainly will NOT say “China” is evil. However, the government of China has not been a good citizen of the civilized world lately, say, from 1950 till 2020. So that would mean the CCP which has ruled China during this period.

  19. Tim and others: just in case, I am paying tax to the Chinese government :-). Not the opposite.

    I have to agree that branding people without good reason to discredit others are pretty good tatics.

    AKTCHI: please define good citizen.

    And in your opinion, which country does fulfill this good citizen role?

  20. Good job folks! You got ad hominem, burden of proof, bandwagon and personal incredulity directed at “China trolls.”

    One more ignorant comment and you’ll likely have the “s**tty arguments bingo card” filled!

  21. Of course they lied why would anyone with half a brain think otherwise. Your cases do not suddenly drop to near zero overnight. In reality they probably have similar or even greater numbers than the US as they should being the mist populous country in the world.

  22. Absolutely no doubt China’s 85,000 confirmed cases is an under count, and the Chinese government is very well aware of it.

    However there is also no doubt the 2,504,175 confirmed cases in the US in an under count, even Fauci admitted that. Estimate for actual number is 10 to 40 times higher, which is in line with what RAND claims about the Chinese number.

    I would rather see the government and government contractors like RAND put the energy in figuring out how to get the outbreak under control in the US, rather than pointing fingers at other countries. We don’t have the population & density like China, and we had 3 weeks head start between the time China reported the outbreak (Dec 31st) and 1st known case in the US (Jan 20th) so it’s quite an embarrassment to see how poorly we do compared to China.

  23. I also believe Thailand has been telling lies since day one. Tourism is all important to Thailand and China is “Big Brother” to the Land of Smiles sending millions of tourists to Thailand. Also, I have a friend who is a nurse and she knows for a fact that COVID-19 cases in Khon Kaen, Thailand were not reported by the Thai Government. She is the head of Immunology at the hospital she works at.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *