Health and Science

Ex-FDA chief worries China could be underestimating coronavirus cases by 'tens of thousands'

Key Points
  • Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said he's worried that coronavirus cases in China are actually much higher than the official numbers.
  • "I think we are dramatically underestimating" cases in China by "tens of thousands," Gottlieb said. "I think the Chinese haven't been fully sharing."
  • Chinese officials on Tuesday sharply increased their confirmed coronavirus cases to nearly 4,700. The death toll in China rose to 106.
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Gottlieb: We're better prepared to deal with coronavirus than with SARs in 2003

Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb on Tuesday said he's worried that coronavirus cases in China are actually much higher than the official numbers.

"I think we are dramatically underestimating" cases in China by "tens of thousands," Gottlieb told CNBC's "Squawk Box." "I think the Chinese haven't been fully sharing."

Chinese officials on Tuesday sharply increased their confirmed coronavirus cases to nearly 4,700. The death toll in China rose to 106. The virus was first discovered in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province in December.

Gottlieb — a physician, health advocate and Pfizer board member — said it's hard to tell the total number of people who were infected in China since health officials there did not widely roll out diagnostic testing until late January.

"We know the numerator," said Gottlieb, who left the Food and Drug Administration in April 2019. "We don't know the denominator." Last week, he said there could be thousands of mild cases that will likely go undiagnosed and clear up on their own.

Later on "Squawk Box," House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone said he's also skeptical of China's coronavirus reporting. "They are not often forthcoming; often don't tell the truth about what's really happening," said the New Jersey Democratic congressman.

China, accused of withholding information in the 2003 SARS epidemic, said its handling of the coronavirus will be different. Last week, the ruling Communist Party's central political and legal affairs commission warned, "Whoever deliberately delays and conceals reports will forever be nailed to history's pillar of shame."

Multiple coronavirus cases have been confirmed in Hong Kong, Macao, Taipei, Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, France and the United States.

Gottlieb, who is also a CNBC contributor, said on Tuesday that he expects the U.S., which confirmed five cases, to have smaller, "inevitable" outbreaks. However, he added that the U.S. can better contain the virus with preventative measures because its population is less dense than that of China.

U.S. health officials warned that the flu or other respiratory illnesses could complicate identifying more cases. They recommend that people call a health-care provider before seeking treatment so the appropriate measures can be put in place.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is trying to speed up testing and to get the tests in the hands of state health officials. It currently takes the CDC about four to six hours to make a diagnosis once a sample makes it to its lab.

CDC officials said Monday that the number of "patients under investigation" in the U.S. has almost doubled since Thursday to a total of 110 across 26 states.

The disease is not spreading through human-to-human contact in the U.S. and the risk to the public right now is still considered low, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters on a conference call Monday.

— CNBC's Berkeley Lovelace Jr. and The Associated Press contributed to this report.