Biden flags concern on China’s COVID response as WHO doubts death toll

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US President Joe Biden raised concern about China’s handling of its COVID-19 outbreak hours after the World Health Organization said it was under-reporting 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 it scrapped stringent COVID-19 controls last month that had shielded its 1.4 billion population from the virus for three years.

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Global health officials are now trying to get to grips with an outbreak that is filling hospitals and overwhelming some funeral homes, situations at odds with China’s low official virus death toll.

Mike Ryan, emergencies director at the World Health Organization (WHO), told a media briefing on Wednesday that current numbers being published from China under-represent hospital admissions, intensive care unit patients and deaths.

Speaking hours later, Biden said that he was worried about how China was handling the outbreak.

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

The comments from the WHO on the lack of data were some of the most critical to date and could earn a critical response from Beijing when it holds a regular foreign ministry press briefing later on Thursday.

There was no immediate coverage of the remarks by Biden or the WHO in Chinese state media on Thursday. The government has recently played down the severity of the situation.

The state-run Global Times said in an article on Wednesday that COVID-19 infections had peaked in several cities including the capital, Beijing, citing interviews with doctors.

But at a hospital in Shanghai’s Qingpu suburb patients were on camp beds in corridors on Thursday, most of them elderly and several breathing with oxygen tanks. A notice on a board advised that patients would have to wait an average of five hours to be seen.

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

China reported one new COVID-19 death in the mainland for Wednesday, compared with five a day earlier, bringing its official death toll to 5,259.

Asian market hopes

With one of the lowest COVID-19 death tolls in the world, China has been routinely accused of under-reporting infections and deaths for political reasons.

Chinese health officials have said only deaths caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure in patients who had the virus are classified as COVID-19 deaths.

The methods for counting COVID-19 deaths have varied across countries since the pandemic first erupted in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Yet disease experts outside China have said its approach would miss several other widely recognised types of potentially fatal COVID-19 complications, from blood clots to heart attacks as well as sepsis and kidney failure.

International health experts predict at least 1 million COVID-related deaths in China this year without urgent action. British-based health data firm Airfinity has estimated about 9,000 people in China are probably dying each day from COVID-19.

Surging COVID-19 infections are hurting demand in China’s $17 trillion economy, with a private-sector survey on Thursday showing services activity shrank in December.

But investors remain optimistic that China’s dismantling of COVID-19 controls will eventually help revive growth that has slid to its lowest rate in nearly half a century. Those hopes were seen lifting Asian equity markets on Thursday.

“China reopening has a big impact ... worldwide,” said Joanne Goh, an investment strategist at DBS Bank in Singapore, adding the move would spur tourism and consumption and ease supply-chain crunches seen last year.

China’s yuan steadied around a four-month high against the dollar.

Testing waste

While countries try to get more information on the extent and severity of China’s outbreak, several have imposed requirements on travelers from China to be tested for COVID-19.

European Union officials recommended on Wednesday that passengers flying from China to the 27-member bloc should have a negative COVID-19 test before they begin their journeys.

The officials also called for testing and sequencing of wastewater 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 inbound travelers to quarantine from January 8, it will still require them to take a COVID-19 test before arrival.

The government said on Thursday that its border with its special administrative region of Hong Kong 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 expected reopening, which some people fear will bring a surge of infections to the financial hub.

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