China failing to reflect true impact of Covid crisis in published data, WHO says

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the Chinese government’s Covid data collection does not reveal the ful impact of the current virus outbreak and that the country has a “very narrow” definition of Covid-related deaths.

The WHO has received no complete data on Covid cases and deaths from Beijing so far, its emergencies director Michael Ryan said at a media briefing on Wednesday.

Millions are likely infected in the country with hundreds of dead bodies reportedly piling up in funeral parlours as experts monitoring the country’s Covid situation said the virus outbreak has brought Chinese health infrastructure to a grinding halt.

Hospital authorities in major Chinese cities have confirmed they are attending to hundreds of patients queuing up outside intensive care units and ward alleys.

The country could have more than 3.7 million daily Covid cases by next week, according to estimates by UK-based health data firm Airfinity.

The firm had last week said 9,000 people were dying from Covid daily, double what it had estimated two weeks ago.

China’s official figures, however, have said there were just 22 Covid-related deaths since December, after watering down the criteria for recording virus-related fatalities.

The WHO official said he believes that the definition being used by China is “too narrow”.

The Xi Jinping administration “requires a respiratory failure” associated with a Covid infection for deaths to be registered as Covid deaths, Mr Ryan pointed out.

“That is a very narrow definition.”

“We believe the current numbers being published from China under-represent the true impact of the disease in terms of hospital admissions, ICU admissions and particularly in terms of death,” the emergencies director said.

Just days after authorities abruptly stripped back their stringent “zero-Covid” policy in early December, new Covid cases started to mount and officials stopped giving daily briefings about the pandemic later that month.

The government also censored the remarks of a senior health official who said around “half a million people a day were being infected with Covid-19 in a single city”.

More than a dozen nations have slapped travel restrictions on passengers coming from China, a measure dubbed as “discriminatory” by the country.

Calling for more detailed geographic data from China, Dr Ryan said the WHO does not “discourage doctors and nurses reporting these deaths and these cases”.

“We have an open approach to be able to record the actual impact of disease in society,” he said, adding that individual health officials could help the WHO assess a clearer picture of the disease impacting millions in China.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also pitched in and called on China to share “more rapid, regular, reliable data on hospitalisation and deaths, as well as more comprehensive, real-time viral sequencing”.

“Data remains essential for [the] WHO to carry out regular, rapid, and robust risk assessments of the current situation and adjust our advice and guidance accordingly,” he said.

The WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) also asked for diverse data from China on Wednesday to “understand the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and the emergence of concerning mutations or variants”.

“This should be done regardless of whether a sequence is assigned a Pango lineage or not. This is best accomplished by rapid and regular depositing of data into publicly accessible databases,” the taskforce said.

It added that maintaining high levels of representative genomic surveillance across China and globally, “annotating genomic sequences with relevant clinical and epidemiological metadata, and rapid sharing of such data are the pillars of timely global risk assessment”.