The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for more data on China’s COVID-19 situation to better understand the transmission dynamics of the virus on the ground and flagged China’s under-reporting of COVID-related deaths.
“There are some very important information gaps that we are working with China to fill. First and foremost is to have a really deeper understanding of the transmission dynamics of Covid across the country,” Dr Maria van Kerkhove, WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, told a media briefing on Wednesday.
She added that the WHO has an open communication channel with the Chinese authorities and has offered technical advisory support to the country’s authorities.
China’s management of COVID-19has been a cause for increased global concern in the recent past. Since the country lifted its ‘zero-COVID’ measures in December 2022, it has seen an unprecedented surge in infections and deaths.
China recently narrowed its definition of COVID-related death to indicate only those with a positive COVID test and died of respiratory failure or pneumonia. By definition, this excludes deaths caused due to underlying conditions worsened by Covid-19.
WHO’s Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told the briefing that the number of COVID-19 deaths across the world has remained constant at between 10,000 and 14,000 per week since mid-September.
Describing these deaths as “unacceptable” since there are tools to prevent it, Tedros added that “this number is almost certainly an underestimate given the underreporting of COVID-related death in China”.
Need for more sequencing
Recalling that the first gene sequence of SARS-CoV2 had been shared with the world three years ago, Tedros stated that the number of sequences that are being shared globally has decreased by more than 90% since the peak of the Omicron infection, while the number of countries sharing sequences has fallen by a third.
“It’s understandable that countries cannot maintain the same levels of testing and sequencing they had during the Omicron peak. At the same time, the world cannot close its eyes and hope this virus will go away.”
He added that only 53 out of 194 countries provide data on Covid-19 deaths that are disaggregated by age and sex.
Since the early days of the pandemic, China has been accused of downplaying the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths. As of 12 January, China has reported a little over 17,000 deaths.
The data from China will help WHO understand the breakdown, increases and decreases in the hospitalisations, ICU capacity and COVID-related deaths in urban and rural areas across the provinces in China, Van Kerkhove explained.
While underlining that the agency has received some sequencing information from China, Van Kerkhove said that further information is necessary. “We have requested further information to have those sequences be shared publicly so that a deeper analysis and more phylogenetic analysis can be done so that we could look mutation by mutation to really assess what is circulating there.”
Reiterating that WHO believes that the “deaths are heavily underreported from China”, Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of health emergencies at WHO, said that the agency does not have enough information to do a comprehensive risk assessment.
“We will continue to try to encourage access to that data but also recognize in the same breath that China has done a lot in the last number of weeks,” Ryan said, acknowledging the country’s efforts to strengthen its own internal capacities like increasing the number of hospitals, ICU beds and fever clinics, and prioritising vulnerable groups in treatment and using antivirals early in the course of the infection.
Urging countries to maintain higher levels of sequencing and data sharing, Van Kerkhove said that this would greatly help WHO’s risk assessments.
“We need to maintain surveillance. We need to maintain sequencing and sharing of sequences from around the world so that risk assessments can take place, and we can ensure that any changes to our response, any changes to our advice is done in a timely manner.”
Source : Health Policy Watch