Biden voices concern over China’s COVID response as WHO doubts death toll

  • WHO says China is underreporting hospital admissions and deaths
  • Official data contradicts crowded hospitals, crematoriums
  • EU recommends border controls for Chinese travelers
  • Asia shares hopes China’s reopening will boost growth

BEIJING/SHANGHAI, Jan 5 (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden has expressed concern over China’s handling of its COVID-19 outbreak hours after the World Health Organization said it is under- declared the virus deaths, comments likely to provoke a response from Beijing on Thursday.

The United States is one of more than a dozen countries that have imposed restrictions on travelers from China since last month scrapping strict COVID controls that had protected its 1.4 billion people. inhabitants of the virus for three years.

Global health officials are now trying to cope with an outbreak that is filling hospitals and overwhelming some funeral homes, situations at odds with the official low death toll from the virus in China.

Mike Ryan, director of emergencies at the World Health Organization (WHO), told a press conference on Wednesday that the current figures released by China under-represent hospital admissions, ward patients intensive care and death.

Speaking hours later, Biden said he was worried about China’s handling of the outbreak.

“They’re very sensitive … when we suggest they haven’t been so forthcoming,” he told reporters during a visit to Kentucky.

The WHO’s comments on the lack of data were among the most critical to date and may merit a critical response from Beijing when it holds a regular Foreign Ministry press briefing later on Thursday.

There was no immediate coverage of Biden’s or the WHO’s remarks in Chinese state media on Thursday. The government recently downplayed the seriousness of the situation.

The state-run Global Times said in an article Wednesday that COVID infections had peaked in several cities, including the capital, Beijing, citing interviews with doctors.

But at a hospital in the Qingpu suburb of Shanghai, patients lay on cots in hallways on Thursday, most of them elderly and several breathing on oxygen tanks. A notice on a board said patients should wait an average of five hours to be seen.

Police were on duty outside a nearby crematorium, where a stream of mourners carried wreaths and waited to collect the ashes of loved ones.

China reported one new COVID-19-related death on the mainland on Wednesday, up from five a day earlier, bringing its official toll to 5,259.

ASIAN MARKET HOPES

With one of the lowest COVID death rates in the world, China has been routinely accused of underreporting infections and deaths for political reasons.

Chinese health officials have said only deaths caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure in patients infected with the virus are classified as COVID deaths.

Methods of counting COVID deaths have varied from country to country since the pandemic first broke out in China’s central city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Still, disease experts outside China said his approach would miss several other widely recognized types of life-threatening COVID complications, from blood clots and heart attacks to sepsis and kidney failure.

International health experts predict at least 1 million COVID-related deaths in China this year without urgent action. British health data firm Airfinity has estimated that around 9,000 people in China are likely dying from COVID every day.

The spike in COVID infections is hurting demand in China’s economy by $17 trillion, with a private sector survey on Thursday showing services activity fell in December.

But investors remain optimistic that China’s dismantling of COVID controls will eventually help revive growth that has slipped to its lowest rate in nearly half a century. Those hopes were seen lifting Asian stock markets (.MIAPJ0000PUS) on Thursday.

“China’s reopening is having a big impact…around the world,” said Joanne Goh, investment strategist at DBS Bank in Singapore, adding that the move would boost tourism and consumption and ease supply chain issues. observed last year.

The Chinese yuan stabilized around a four-month high against the dollar.

TEST WASTE

As countries try to get more information on the extent and severity of the outbreak in China, several have mandated travelers from China to be tested for COVID.

European Union officials recommended on Wednesday that passengers traveling from China to the 27-member bloc have a negative COVID-19 test before beginning their journey.

Officials have also called for testing and sequencing of sewage on planes arriving from China and at airports that handle international flights, among other measures.

China has criticized border controls imposed by other countries on its residents as unreasonable and unscientific.

While China will stop requiring incoming travelers to self-quarantine from January 8, it will still require them to take a COVID test before arrival.

The government announced on Thursday that its border with its Hong Kong special administrative region would also reopen on Sunday, for the first time in three years.

Hong Kong residents have swamped clinics to get vaccinated against COVID-19 ahead of the planned reopening, which some people fear will lead to a wave of infections in the financial hub.

Reporting by Liz Lee and Bernard Orr in Beijing, Brenda Goh in Shanghai, Tom Westbrook in Singapore, Steve Holland in Hebron, Kentucky; Written by John Geddie; Editing by Robert Birsel

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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