China under-representing Covid infections and deaths, WHO warns

A patient with Covid-19 rests in a wheelchair in a hallway at Tangshan Gongren Hospital in China's city of Tangshan (AFP via Getty Images)
A patient with Covid-19 rests in a wheelchair in a hallway at Tangshan Gongren Hospital in China's city of Tangshan (AFP via Getty Images)

The World Health Organisation has warned that China is underrepresenting the number of people dying with Covid as the country experiences a huge surge in infections.

Beijing is not currently publishing its daily case data, sparking concern that the country may be greatly downplaying the size of its infection wave.

China has only announced 22 Covid deaths since December and uses its own criteria to measure fatalities. Only respiratory illnesses, such as pneumonia, are counted as a Covid death – against the WHO’s own guidance.

The WHO encourages countries to count its number of excess deaths, which measure Covid fatalities against those reported before the pandemic hit.

Dr Michael Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies director, said he believed that China’s definition of a Covid death was “too narrow”.

He claimed the figures “underrepresent the true impact of the disease in terms of hospital admissions, in terms of ICU admissions, and particularly in terms of death”.

The agency has urged Chinese officials to share more genetic sequencing data, as well as on hospitalisations, deaths and vaccinations.

China’s President Xi Jinping abruptly ended the country’s Zero Covid strategy on December 7, which sought to eliminate all transmission of the virus through harsh lockdowns and mass testing. The policy sparked protests in several Chinese cities last month.

Health officials fear that the large wave of infection sparked by China’s reopening could lead to the emergence of new variants, as high levels of transmission allow the virus to mutate.

However, no new variants have yet been detected in China.

Dr Ryan urged individual health workers in the country to report their own data and experiences to the agency.

“We do not discourage doctors and nurses reporting these deaths and these cases," he said. “We have an open approach to be able to record the actual impact of disease in society.”

UK-based health data firm Airfinity last week claimed that around 9,000 people in China are probably dying each day from Covid.

Cumulative deaths since December 1 have likely reached 100,000, with infections topping 18.6 million, it said.

China reported five new Covid deaths for Tuesday, bringing the official death toll to 5,258, very low by global standards. The UK has recorded over 177,000 fatalities.

The UK, US, India and Italy are among a number of countries to have imposed mandatory Covid tests for travellers from China in response to the surge in infections.

Beijing last week dismissed the regulations are “discriminatory”, with state-run tabloid The Global Times claiming the “real intention” of the measures was to “sabotage China’s three years of Covid-19 control and attack the country’s system”.