W.H.O.: China Coronavirus Deaths ‘Heavily Underreported,’ Hurting Global Data

Workers in protective transport the body of a deceased patient at a fever clinic in Beijin
Bloomberg/Contributor/Getty Images

The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) again criticized the government of China on Wednesday for “underreporting” coronavirus cases and deaths, making it difficult for the U.N. agency to assess the severity of the situation in the country and offer advice.

Once one of the most fervent defenders of the communist regime’s coronavirus policies, the W.H.O. began to sour on China last year amid the extremely violent lockdown of Shanghai, the nation’s largest and wealthiest city, in March and April.

The Communist Party announced that it would no longer engage in “large-scale” lockdowns in December, claiming it was “optimizing” its coronavirus protocol because the dominant omicron variant causes less severe disease than prior iterations of the virus. In the vast majority of the rest of the world, scientists had determined that omicron carried a lesser risk of causing severe disease than other variants about a year before Beijing announced it had made this discovery.

The period following “optimization” has resulted in widespread reports of overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes and crematories struggling to keep up with demand for their services. The Chinese government has documented very few coronavirus deaths in the past month and denies that a surge in deaths is occurring nationally. Chinese public health officials changed the definition of a coronavirus death in December, making it far more narrow, and announced it would stop publishing daily coronavirus statistics at the end of the month.

Addressing the situation in China, W.H.O. emergencies director Mike Ryan told reporters on Wednesday that his agency believes coronavirus deaths in China are “heavily underreported,” leaving the W.H.O. with insufficient information to make critical assessments.

“W.H.O. still believes that deaths are heavily under-reported from China and this is in relation to the definitions that are used but also the need for doctors and those reporting in the public health system to be encouraged to report these cases and not discouraged,” Ryan said, according to a transcript of Wednesday’s regular press conference.

World Health Organisation (WHO) Executive Director of Health emergencies programme Michael Ryan. (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

Ryan offered a mild compliment to China in stating that the communist regime had “done a lot in the last number of weeks, particularly to strengthen its own internal capacities to service the clinical needs of its own population.”

The head of the W.H.O., Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, opened the press conference with the news that, according to government-reported statistics, coronavirus deaths had dropped dramatically around the world, but discouraged celebration as China’s false statistics likely meant the data was corrupted.

“Last week, almost 11,500 deaths were reported to W.H.O., about 40 percent from the Americas, 30 percent from Europe and 30 percent from the Western Pacific region,” Tedros said. “However, this number is almost certainly an underestimate given the under-reporting of COVID-related deaths in China.”

“The more data we have, the clearer a picture we have. We continue to call on all countries to focus on fully vaccinating the most at-risk groups,” Tedros concluded, “especially older people, and we continue to call on all people to take appropriate precautions when necessary to protect yourself and others. You may not die with this disease but you could give it to someone else who does.”

Maria Van Kerkhove, the W.H.O. head of coronavirus response, also lamented “very important information gaps” regarding China, stating that her agency did not have a particularly clear picture of how hospitals and intensive care units across China were handling high patient volume. Van Kerkhove also stated that the W.H.O. was urging China to be more transparent regarding data on what variants are circulating in the country.

“We have had further information from China on which viruses are circulating in China and China CDC has reported to us that the sequences that have been detected are mainly these BA.5 sublineages,” she said. “But, we have requested further information to have those sequences be shared publicly so that a deeper analysis and more of a phylogenetic analysis can be done so that we can look mutation by mutation to really assess what is circulating there.”

New subvariant information, multiple W.H.O. officials said, was largely from America, thanking the United States for its “radical transparency” on the matter.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin responded to the W.H.O.’s latest accusations on Thursday, claiming China had been “timely, open, and transparent” on public health since the pandemic began.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin listens to a question at the daily Foreign Ministry briefing in Beijing on July 24, 2020. - China on July 24 ordered the US consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu to close in retaliation for one of its missions in the United States being shuttered, capping a furious week of Cold War-style diplomacy. (Photo by GREG BAKER / AFP) (Photo by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin listens to a question at the daily Foreign Ministry briefing in Beijing on July 24, 2020. (Photo by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

“We would like to stress again that China has been sharing relevant information and data in a timely, open and transparent manner in accordance with the law,” Wang said. “China has not only protected its own people’s lives to the greatest extent possible, but also served as a major source of [Chinese coronavirus] response supplies for the world, making China an important participant in international cooperation against the virus.”

“We hope that the W.H.O. will look at China’s [Chinese coronavirus] response scientifically and rationally and that its related statements will reflect objectivity and impartiality,” Wang concluded.

In reality, China obscured the discovery of a novel respiratory disease in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, and in early 2020 let 5 million people leave Wuhan and spread the disease around the world. The Wuhan government attempted to break a record for the world’s largest banquet, convening over 100,000 people, and arrested doctors who suggested those potentially exposed to the new disease wash their hands and wear sanitary masks.

The W.H.O. supported China against worldwide outrage at that time, even spreading disinformation claiming the highly contagious Chinese coronavirus was not transmissible from person to person. That appeared to change last year, when Tedros lamented the Shanghai lockdown and similar widespread house arrest policies as unnecessary and unsustainable in light of the development of vaccine products – resulting in Tedros, a previously enthusiastic Chinese government ally, being censored on regime-controlled state media.

Chinese state propaganda claimed on Tuesday that multiple populous regions of China had passed their “peak” of coronavirus cases in the current wave, a claim undercut by ongoing reports of overwhelmed funeral homes, shortages in basic medicines, and hospitals struggling to meet demand.

The Washington Post estimated that about 5,000 people were dying in China a day this week, compared to the little more than 5,000 it reported that China had documented since 2019. Public health resources not relying solely on the Chinese Center for Disease Control (CDC) have suggested a largely, but similarly proportionately questionable, total death toll in China of 17,837 people.

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