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Analyst: China's coronavirus victims 'probably 10 times' higher than reported

Javier E. David
Editor focused on markets and the economy

As the number of patients stricken by China’s coronavirus continues to mount, at least one analyst believes the country’s reported casualties might be far higher than Beijing has publicly admitted.

Raymond James health care policy analyst Chris Meekins said he suspects official Chinese statistics on coronavirus infections is “really a fraction” of those who actually have contracted the disease — in part because of the country’s established history of underreporting its public health crises.

As global health officials grapple with arresting the virus’ spread, Meekins told “The Ticker” on Friday that “Based on conversations I’ve had with individuals both in the U.S. government and more importantly [in China] is that the number that have been reported out of China on this disease are really a fraction of the number of people who have probably had the disease.” 

Over the weekend, China said that thousands of new cases had surfaced, and put the official death count at 80, as a fifth U.S. patient was identified by the Centers for Disease Control on Sunday. The news rocked Wall Street on Monday, where major benchmarks plunged at the opening bell, as traders grappled with fears of a global pandemic.

“If China’s been reporting about 800 [infections] with 25 deaths, we think the number is probably 10 times that number in China right now because you had a number of misdiagnoses,” Meekins said.   

“In China it’s a much bigger issue than people realize,” the analyst said. “In the U.S. I still think it’s not going to be a big issue, though in the coming days I think we’re going to see a notable increase in the coming patients that actually have the virus here.”

Don’t bet on drug stocks just yet

People wearing face masks use their cellphones at the Tiananmen Square, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Beijing, China January 27, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

With the disease spreading beyond China’s borders, some pharmaceutical stocks have spiked on bets that the search for a vaccine will benefit those companies. On Monday, shares of U.S. drug-makers including NanoViricides (NNVC), Inovio Pharmaceuticals (INO), Novavax (NVAX) and Moderna (MRNA) spiked on widening fears of contagion.

However, Meekins stressed that market bets on certain stocks is premature at best, explaining that in prior pandemics such as Ebola, bird flu and Zika, there wasn’t a developed commercial market until governments put up initial money for development.

“It’s important to know how big the potential universe for any vaccine is likely to be,” he told Yahoo Finance. 

“So companies that have a partnership with the government … those would be areas that are better to invest in than companies that don’t have government funding, because I don’t believe there’s a sustained investment.”

He also injected a note of caution, adding that there was “a long history of companies that, as soon as a new disease pops its head up, claim they’re going to do stuff, raise a bunch of money from investors, and never actually finish the job.”

Javier David is an editor for Yahoo Finance. Follow Javier on Twitter: @TeflonGeek

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