China Covid data shows no new variant but under-reports deaths: WHO

Published January 4, 2023
Patients lie on beds next to closed counters at the emergency department of Zhongshan Hospital, amid the coronavirus outbreak in Shanghai, China, January 3. — Reuters
Patients lie on beds next to closed counters at the emergency department of Zhongshan Hospital, amid the coronavirus outbreak in Shanghai, China, January 3. — Reuters

Data from China shows no new coronavirus variant has been found there, but it also under-represents how many people have died in the country’s rapidly spreading outbreak, World Health Organisation (WHO) officials said on Wednesday.

Global unease has grown about the accuracy of China’s reporting of an outbreak that has filled hospitals and overwhelmed some funeral homes since Beijing abruptly reversed its “zero Covid” policy.

The UN agency was releasing data provided by the Chinese Centre For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a day after WHO officials met Chinese scientists. China has been reporting daily Covid deaths in single figures.

Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies director, told a media briefing that current numbers being published from China under-represented numbers of hospital admissions, ICU admissions and “particularly in terms of death”.

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the UN agency was continuing to seek more rapid and regular data from China on hospitalisations and deaths.

“WHO is concerned about the risk to life in China and has reiterated the importance of vaccination, including booster doses to protect against hospitalisation, severe disease and death,” he said.

China’s People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, sought to rally worried citizens for what it calls a “final victory” over Covid-19, rebutting criticism of its policy of strict isolation that triggered rare protests last year.

Beijing’s abrupt axing of those ultra-strict curbs last month has unleashed the virus on China’s 1.4 billion people, who have little immunity after being shielded since it emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan three years ago.

Health officials abroad have been struggling to work out the scale of the outbreak and how to stop it from spreading, with more countries introducing measures such as pre-departure Covid tests for arrivals from China, moves that Beijing has criticised.

European Union health officials meet on Wednesday to discuss a coordinated response to it.

Funeral homes overwhelmed

China’s CDC analysis showed a predominance of Omicron lineages BA.5.2 and BF.7 among locally acquired infections, according to the data reported by the WHO.

Omicron is the dominant variant based on recent genomic sequencing, confirming what scientists had already said but allaying concerns for now about a new variant emerging.

However, many Chinese funeral homes and hospitals say they are overwhelmed, and international health experts predict at least one million Covid-related deaths in China this year.

China has reported five or fewer deaths a day since the policy U-turn.

“That is totally ridiculous,” a 66-year-old Zhang, a Beijing resident who only gave his last name, said of the official toll.

“Four of my close relatives died. That’s only from one family. I hope the government will be honest with the people and the rest of the world about what’s really happened here.”

China’s cabinet said on Wednesday it would step up medicine distribution and meet demand from medical institutions, nursing homes and rural areas, state media reported.

Beijing has hit back against some countries demanding visitors from China show pre-departure Covid tests, saying the rules were unreasonable and lacked a scientific basis.

Japan, the United States, Australia and several European states are among the countries requiring such tests.

Willie Walsh, head of the world’s biggest airline association, International Air Transport Association, criticised such “knee-jerk” measures that he said had not previously stopped the spread of a virus that had hammered airlines which are recovering from the pandemic.

China will stop requiring inbound travellers to quarantine from January 8 but they must be tested before arrival.

China reported five new Covid deaths for Tuesday, bringing the official death toll to 5,258, very low by global standards.

British-based health data firm Airfinity has estimated about 9,000 people in China are probably dying each day from Covid.

Patients at Shanghai’s Zhongshan hospital, many of them elderly, were crammed in halls on Tuesday between makeshift beds with people on oxygen ventilators and intravenous drips.

A Reuters witness counted seven hearses in the parking lot of Shanghai’s Tongji hospital on Wednesday. Workers were seen carrying at least 18 yellow bags used to move bodies.

China’s $17 trillion economy has grown at its slowest in nearly half a century amid the Covid disruptions.

But the yuan was at a four-month high against the dollar on Wednesday after Finance Minister Liu Kun promised to step up fiscal expansion. The central bank has also flagged support.

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