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Chinese statistics ‘underrepresent’ true impact of Covid outbreak: WHO

The World Health Organization on Wednesday criticized China’s “very narrow” definition of Covid deaths, warning that official statistics did not show the true impact of the epidemic.

There is growing concern about the sharp rise in Covid infections in China since Beijing abruptly lifted years of tight restrictions last month, with hospitals and crematoria quickly overwhelmed.

“We don’t have complete data yet,” WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan told reporters.

“We believe the current published numbers from China underrepresent the true impact of the disease in terms of hospital admissions, in terms of ICU admissions, and especially in terms of deaths.”

China has recorded just 22 Covid deaths since December and has slashed the criteria for classifying those deaths, meaning Beijing’s statistics on the unprecedented surge are now widely regarded as not reflecting reality.

Ryan stressed that the definition Beijing is using “requires respiratory failure” associated with a Covid infection for a death to be recorded as a Covid death.

“That’s a very narrow definition,” he said.

Testing “understandable” travelers

EU countries also echoed WHO’s concern that China’s data on Covid infections was insufficient.

As countries grapple with best response to rising cases, a crisis meeting of European Union experts on Wednesday said EU countries were “strongly encouraged” to require passengers arriving from China for Covid tests .

The meeting was held to coordinate a joint EU response to the sudden influx of visitors as Beijing rolls back its “zero-Covid” policy that had largely closed the country to international travel.

Experts have also recommended that passengers to and from China wear masks, that EU countries conduct random tests on arrivals and check sewage from flights from China, according to a statement released by the Swedish EU presidency.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus previously told reporters that officials of the organization had held high-level talks in recent weeks with counterparts in China.

“We continue to ask China for faster, more regular and more reliable data on hospitalizations and deaths, as well as more comprehensive, real-time viral sequencing,” Tedros said.

He reiterated that the UN health agency understood why some countries were introducing new Covid curbs to visitors from China.

“With such high circulation in China and full data unavailable… it is understandable that some countries are taking steps they feel will protect their citizens,” he said.

The United States – which will require most travelers from China to test negative starting Thursday – praised the role of the WHO and said Washington’s own precautions were due to Beijing’s lack of transparency.

The UN body is “in the best position to make an assessment” thanks to its contacts with Chinese officials, State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

“Most transmissible” subvariant.

Outside of China, many experts have their attention on the United States and Omicron’s XBB.1.5 subvariant, which has been detected in 29 countries so far.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, said it was the “most transmissible subvariant ever detected”.

However there is as yet no indication that XBB.1.5 – which has spread rapidly in the northeastern US – causes more severe disease than other types of Covid.

The increase in XBB.1.5 cases, Van Kerkhove said, underlined how important it was to “continue surveillance for Covid-19 around the world.”

“There were more than 13 million cases of Covid reported to WHO last month alone, he said, ‘and we know this is an undercount because surveillance has declined.’

There were also 15% more Covid deaths globally last month than the previous month, he said.

“Every week, about 10,000 people die from Covid-19 that we know about,” Tedros said. “The true price is probably much higher.”