The World Health Organization has accused China of “underrepresenting” the severity his Covid outbreak and criticized its “narrow” definition of what constitutes a Covid death, as top global health officials urge Beijing to share more data on the explosive spread.
“We keep asking China for faster, more regular and more reliable data on hospital admissions and deaths, and more comprehensive real-time virus sequencing,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday.
“WHO is concerned about the risk of life in China and has reiterated the importance of vaccination, including booster doses, to protect against hospitalization, serious illness and death,” he said.
Mike Ryan, WHO Executive Director for Health Emergencies, elaborated that the figures released by China “underrepresent the true impact of the disease in terms of hospital and intensive care admissions and deaths”.
He acknowledged that many countries have seen delays in reporting hospital data, but cited China “narrow” definition of a Covid death as part of the issue.
The country only lists those Covid patients who have succumbed to lung failure as having died of Covid. In the two weeks leading up to Jan. 5, China reported fewer than 20 deaths from local Covid cases, according to figures released on the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.
On Thursday, China’s foreign ministry said the country has always shared epidemic information “timely, openly and transparently” and insisted its Covid situation was “under control.”
“We hope that the WHO Secretariat will take a science-based, objective and equitable position and play a positive role in the global fight against the pandemic,” spokesman Mao Ning said at a daily news briefing.
Chinese experts would attend a regular briefing of WHO member states on Thursday to “respond to technical issues of concern to other parties,” Mao said, adding that China continues to closely monitor possible mutations in the virus and provide relevant information will publish.
WHO officials, who have grappled with Beijing’s tight controls on data access during the pandemic, have become louder in their calls for reliable information as a major outbreak ravages China’s urban centers after an abrupt relaxation of disease controls last month.
There the eruption overcrowded hospitals and crematoriasparked a shortage of essential medicines and stoked fears of an even darker month as experts warn it could spread to rural areas with fewer resources during the upcoming Lunar New Year.
The surge in cases in a country of 1.4 billion people has also raised global concerns about the possible emergence of new variants – and the level of surveillance and data sharing in China. A number of countries have introduced Covid exam requirements for travelers from China, citing a lack of data on tribes circulating there.
On Wednesday, the European Union “strongly encouraged” its member states to introduce a requirement for a negative Covid test for passengers traveling to the EU from China, according to a statement by the bloc’s Swedish presidency.
WHO’s Tedros said on Wednesday it was “understandable” that some countries were taking these steps, “with such heavy demand in China and no comprehensive data forthcoming.”
China’s foreign ministry earlier this week called the measures unscientific and promised to take “appropriate countermeasures for different situations according to the principle of reciprocity.”
In an online statement updated Thursday, GISAID — an international initiative to share genomic data for flu viruses and Covid-19 — said China had further “intensified” its surveillance efforts, and preliminary analysis showed the reported data was very similar to that of already common known variants similar are global.
Chinese health officials also presented updated genomic data to a WHO advisory panel during a closed meeting on Tuesday. In a statement Wednesday, the WHO advisory body said the variants discovered in China are known and have been circulating in other countries, with no new variant reported by the Chinese CDC so far.
But the advice The group and senior WHO officials stressed the need for more genomic data. The latest situation adds to long-standing challenges for the UN body, which was criticized early in the pandemic for not pressing China hard enough to provide data amid concerns Beijing was obscuring critical information.
“Much more data needs to be shared from China and additionally from around the world for us to be able to track this pandemic as we enter this fourth year,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead for Covid, on Wednesday.
“We need more information about sequencing across the country and (and for) those sequences to be shared with publicly available databases like GISAID so that deeper analysis can be done,” she said.