WHO accuses China of downplaying Covid surge amid ‘risk to life’

Patients at a hospital in Shanghai amid a Covid outbreak across China (Reuters)
Patients at a hospital in Shanghai amid a Covid outbreak across China (Reuters)

The World Health Organisation is “concerned about the risk to life in China” it said on Wednesday as it warned that information from Beijing is not giving an accurate picture of the impact of the coronavirus.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said he understood why many countries have imposed testing restrictions on passengers coming from China given the lack of information from the Chinese government about the outbreak.

“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.

Mike Ryan, the agency’s director for emergencies, said the Chinese government’s new definition for recording Covid deaths is “too narrow”. China has reported five or fewer deaths a day since the policy U-turn last month.

“We believe that the current numbers being published from China underrepresent the true impact of the disease in terms of hospital admissions, in terms of ICU admissions, particularly in terms of death,” he said. “We still do not have complete data.”

China’s current outbreak is being driven by Omicron lineages BA.5.2 and BF.7, the WHO said, allaying some concerns about a potential new variant.

However, many Chinese funeral homes and hospitals say they are overwhelmed, and international health experts predict at least 1 million Covid deaths in China this year.

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

The emergency department of a hospital in Shangai (Reuters)
The emergency department of a hospital in Shangai (Reuters)

Earlier this week, Beijing sharply criticised testing requirements imposed on visitors from China by the United States and others, and threatened countermeasures.

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.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said it did not expect the Covid surge in China to affect rates in Europe, given the high rates of vaccination across the continent.

Maria van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said the agency was evaluating the significance of the variant known as XBB.1.5, which has recently comprised an increasing proportion of cases in the United States.

“Our concern is how transmissible it is,” Ms Van Kerkhove said. “The more this virus circulates, the more chances it will have to change,” she said, adding that further waves of transmission do not necessarily have to translate into more deaths, with the wide availability of vaccination and drugs.

Ms Van Kerkhove said there is no data yet to prove that XBB.1.5 causes more severe disease, but that the WHO is working on a new risk assessment of the variant that it expects to release soon.

AP and Reuters contributed to this report