What information is China withholding regarding COVID-19?
TAIPEI, Taiwan – As COVID-19 tears through China, other countries and the World Health Organization are calling on their governments to share more comprehensive data on the outbreak. Some even say that many of the numbers they report are meaningless.
Without basic data like the number of deaths, infections and serious cases, governments elsewhere have instituted virus testing requirements for travelers from China. Beijing has said the measures are not based on science and are dangerous.
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The biggest concern is whether new variants will emerge from the epidemic that is emerging in China and spread to other countries. The delta and omicron variants developed in places where there were also large events, which could be a breeding ground for new variants.
Here’s a look at what’s going on with China’s COVID-19 data:
What is China sharing and not sharing?
Chinese health authorities publish a daily tally of new cases, actual cases and deaths, but these numbers only include officially confirmed cases and use a very narrow definition of deaths related to COVID.
China is certainly doing its own sampling studies but just not sharing them, said Ray Yip, founder of the US Centers for Disease Control’s China office.
The national tally for Thursday was 9,548 new cases and five deaths, but some local governments are issuing much higher estimates just for their jurisdictions. Zhejiang, a province on the east coast, said on Tuesday it was seeing about 1 million new cases a day.
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If a variant appears in an outbreak, it can be found through the genetic sequence of the virus.
Since the start of the pandemic, China has shared 4,144 sequences with GISAID, a global platform for coronavirus data. That’s only 0.04% of the number of reported cases – a rate more than 100 times less than the United States and nearly four times less than neighboring Mongolia.
What is known and what can be understood?
So far, no new variants have appeared in the strains shared with China. The strains causing the disease in China are “very similar” to those seen in other parts of the world since July, GISAID said. Dr. Gagandeep Kang, who studies viruses at Vellore Christian Medical College in India, agreed, saying there was nothing particularly alarming in the data so far.
That has not stopped at least 10 countries – including the US, Canada, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, the UK, France, Spain and Italy – from announcing virus testing requirements for travelers from China. The European Union encouraged all its member states to do so this week.
Health officials have defended the test as an investigative step that will help fill an information gap from China. This means that countries can get a reading about any changes in the virus through tests, even if they don’t have complete data from China.
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“We don’t need China to check that, we just need to test everyone coming out of China,” said Yip, a former public health official.
Canada and Belgium said they will look for viral particles in waste water on planes coming from China.
“It’s like an early warning system for authorities to anticipate if there’s a surge of infections coming in,” said Dr Khoo Yoong Khean, a scientific officer at the Duke-NUS Outbreak Center in Singapore. .
Is China sharing enough information?
Chinese officials have repeatedly said they are sharing information, pointing to the lines given to GISAID and meetings with the WHO.
But WHO officials have repeatedly asked for more – not only on genetic sequencing but also on hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed concern this week about the threat to life in China.
“Data remains essential for WHO to make regular, rapid and robust risk assessments of the global situation,” said the head of the UN health agency.
The Chinese government often withholds information from its own public, especially anything that reflects negatively on the ruling Communist Party. State media have shied away from dire reports of a spike in cremations and people racing from hospital to hospital to try to get treatment as the health system reaches capacity. Government officials have accused foreign media of hyping the situation.
Khean, noting that South Africa’s early warning about omicron led to a ban on travelers from the country, said there is a need to foster an environment where countries can share data without fear of to be about consequences.
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