WHO pressures China to come clean on Covid

People receive intravenous treatment at a community healthcare center in Hangzhou in east China's Zhejiang province 3 January, 2023. (Keystone/Long Wei/Avalon)

Senior officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) have pressured China to provide more Covid-19 data as cases continue to rise globally.

Cases of the virus have spiked since China lifted its strict zero-Covid strategy on 7 December, after residents protested against Beijing’s strict sanitary measures in cities across the country. There are fears that the true scope of the epidemic is not being shared by Chinese authorities.

“The current numbers being published from China underestimate the true impact of the disease in terms of hospital admissions and ICU admissions and in terms of deaths,” Mike Ryan, emergencies director at the Geneva-based UN agency, told reporters on Wednesday. “We would like to see more data on a more geographic basis across China.”

Since the start of the pandemic, China has given limited access and information about the origins of the pandemic. Chinese scientists presented data on Tuesday to a WHO technical advisory group about the epidemiological situation.

Ryan also said that fear increased when people do not have access to reliable data: “The state should be the primary source of credible, accurate information relating to people’s health of which they can take appropriate action.”

He said that the use of a very narrow definition of Covid-related deaths was being employed, reducing the number of recorded fatalities. Media stories have reported Chinese hospital facilities overflowing with Covid patients and morgues struggling to cope with bodies.

Meanwhile, WHO said over 13 million cases of the virus were reported globally over the past month, including a 15 per cent rise in reported deaths.

“We know that that is an understatement due to the delays in reporting,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead.

She said a subvariant of the virus, known as XBB.1.5, the “most  transmissible” so far, was causing concern, particularly in the northeast of the United States and parts of Europe where it has replaced other sub variants. The expert said however that infections in China originated from different sub lineages of the virus.

“It is really critical that we continue surveillance…so that we can understand and track these known sub variants that are in circulation so that they can be assessed, so that we can understand the epidemiological picture around the world,” Van Kerkhove added.

In recent days, a number of countries, including the US, the UK, France and Italy, have imposed restrictions on travellers coming from China over concerns of rising infections in the country. Calling the move “unacceptable”, China has threatened to retaliate with countermeasures.