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Zero-COVID to zero deaths: China alters coronavirus counts

December 21, 2022

Only deaths resulting directly from respiratory failure due to a coronavirus infection will be counted as COVID-19 deaths under new Chinese rules. The WHO has expressed concern over the situation.

A woman buys an antigen tests in Jiangsu province.
China removed one death from its official tally.Image: CFOTO/picture alliance

China on Wednesday reported no COVID-19 deaths over the previous 24 hours and 3,049 new domestic infections after changing the criteria for recording deaths from the virus.

New government rules only count those who died directly of pneumonia or respiratory failure caused by the virus as COVID deaths in the statistics. Previously, people who died of an illness while infected with the virus were counted as a COVID death.

COVID-19: Hundreds of 'fever clinics' in Beijing

"At present after being infected with the omicron variant, the main cause of death remains underlying diseases. Old people have other underlying conditions, only a very small number die directly of respiratory failure caused by infection with COVID," Wang Guiqiang of Peking University First Hospital said during a press conference on Tuesday.

Cases rise after restrictions lifted 

China lifted its zero-COVID policy of lockdowns, quarantines, and mass testing. However, the sudden decision has left hospitals struggling, and medicines are in low supply. In Beijing, long waiting times and high fees were reported at cremations.

Crematorium workers across the country said they were struggling to keep up with the number of deaths, the AFP news agency reported. 

Out of the seven deaths reported since lifting the zero-COVID policy, one was removed from the official tally on Wednesday.

China's Global Times newspaper cited Wang as saying that the death toll may spike soon. He expects the wave to peak in late January. 

"The new definition is a reversal of the international norm adopted since mid-April during the Shanghai outbreak, which counts a covid death as anyone who died with COVID. It is hard to say this is not politically driven," Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations told AFP.

The US has raised concern over the rise of cases in China. Neighboring India has also stepped up surveillance due to the rise in cases. 

WHO warns of severe disease

The World Health Organization has expressed its concern regarding the situation in China, amid the rising reports of severe infections across the country.

"WHO is very concerned over the evolving situation in China with increasing reports of severe disease,'' WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a press briefing on Wednesday. He added that the pandemic was far from over, despite the decline in worldwide deaths.

The WHO director said that the UN agency lacked clear statistics about the COVID-19 situation in China, where the deadly pandemic was born three years ago.

Residents queue to receive a nasal spray COVID-19 booster vaccine in Beijing, China December 17, 2022.
China has exclusively relied on its homemade vaccines, whose efficacy has come into questionImage: REUTERS TV via REUTERS

Some scientists are concerned that the spread of the virus in China amid the abruptly lifted restrictions could lead to the emergence of new variants.

WHO emergencies Chief Michael Ryan stressed that vaccines were the "exit strategy" particularly from the highly-transmissible Omicron variant.

Michael expressed concern over China's vaccination rate among citizens above 60 years of age. He also cast doubt on the efficacy of the Chinese vaccine, which the country has been exclusively relying on during its containment strategy.

tg/sms (AFP, AP, Reuters)