China reports first COVID deaths in weeks as doubts mount over official tally

  • Beijing reports two deaths, first since Dec. 3
  • It comes after Beijing relaxed anti-virus controls
  • Citizens, analysts question official figures
  • The increase in the virus weighs on the second largest economy in the world

BEIJING, Dec 19 (Reuters) – China on Monday reported its first COVID-19-related deaths in weeks amid growing doubts whether the official tally reflected the full death toll of a disease sweeping cities after it spread. the government will relax strict antivirus controls. .

The two deaths on Monday were the first reported by the NHC since Dec. 3, days before Beijing announced it would lift restrictions that had kept the virus in check for three years but sparked widespread protests. last month.

However, on Saturday, Reuters journalists witnessed hearses lined up in front of a designated COVID-19 crematorium in Beijing and workers in hazmat suits carrying the dead inside the facility. Reuters could not immediately establish whether the deaths were due to COVID.

A hashtag about the two reported deaths from COVID quickly became the top trending topic on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo on Monday morning.

“What’s the point of incomplete statistics?” asked one user. “Isn’t this misleading the public?” wrote another.

The NHC did not immediately respond to questions from Reuters about the accuracy of its data.

Officially, China has suffered just 5,237 COVID-related deaths during the pandemic, including the last two fatalities, a small fraction of its population of 1.4 billion and very low by world standards.

But health experts have said China may pay a price for taking such stringent measures to protect a population that now lacks natural immunity to COVID-19 and has low vaccination rates among the elderly.

Some fear that the COVID death toll in China could exceed 1.5 million in the coming months.

Respected Chinese news outlet Caixin reported on Friday that two state media journalists had died after contracting COVID, and then on Saturday that a 23-year-old medical student had also died. It was not immediately clear which, if any, of these deaths were included in the official death toll.

“The (official) number is clearly an undercount of COVID deaths,” said Yanzhong Huang, a global health specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a US think tank.

That “may reflect the state’s inability to effectively track and monitor the disease situation on the ground after the collapse of the massive PCR testing regime, but it may also be driven by efforts to avoid mass panic over the increase in deaths from COVID”. he said.

The NHC reported 1,995 symptomatic infections on December 18, up from 2,097 the day before.

But infection rates have also become an unreliable guide, with much less mandatory PCR testing taking place following the recent relaxation. The NHC stopped reporting asymptomatic cases last week citing the drop in testing.

China’s stocks fell and the yuan weakened against the dollar on Monday as investors worried that rising COVID-19 cases would further hit the world’s second-largest economy despite promises of government support.

The virus was also sweeping through trading floors in Beijing and spreading rapidly in the financial hub of Shanghai, with illnesses and absences curtailing already light trading and forcing regulators to cancel a weekly meeting to review public share sales.

Japanese chip maker Renesas Electronics Corp. (6723.T) said on Monday that it had suspended work at its Beijing plant due to COVID-19 infections.

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China’s chief epidemiologist Wu Zunyou said on Saturday the country was in the midst of the first of three waves of COVID expected this winter, which was more in line with what people said they were experiencing on the ground. .

“I would say 60 to 70 percent of my colleagues… are infected right now,” Liu, a 37-year-old university canteen worker in Beijing, told Reuters, asking to be identified by his last name.

While senior officials have downplayed the threat posed by the new Omicron virus strain in recent weeks, authorities remain concerned about the elderly, who have been reluctant to get vaccinated.

Officially, China’s vaccination rate is above 90%, but the rate for adults receiving booster doses of the vaccine falls to 57.9% and 42.3% for people 80 and older, according to government data.

In Beijing’s Shijingshan district, medical workers have been going door-to-door offering to vaccinate the elderly at their homes, the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported on Sunday.

But it’s not just the elderly who are wary of vaccines.

“I don’t trust that,” Candice, a 28-year-old headhunter from Shenzhen, told Reuters, citing stories from friends about the health impacts, as well as similar health warnings on social media. Candice spoke on the condition that she only use her first name.

Overseas-developed vaccines are not available in mainland China to the general public, which has relied on inactivated injections from local manufacturers for its vaccine rollout.

While China’s medical community generally does not doubt the safety of China’s vaccines, some say questions remain about their efficacy compared to their foreign-made mRNA counterparts.

Reporting by Liz Lee, Martin Quin Pollard, Eduardo Baptista, Jing Wang and Ryan Woo in Beijing and David Kirton in Shenzhen; Written by John Geddie; Edited by Simon Cameron-Moore

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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