The WHO says it’s not yet seeing new COVID variants in China—but data ‘underrepresent’ deaths

January 5, 2023, 9:36 AM UTC
Mike Ryan, the WHO's executive director for health emergencies, said Chinese data "underrepresent" the true extent of China's COVID outbreak during a Wednesday media briefing.
Fabrice Coffrini—AFP via Getty Images

Governments like the U.S. say they’re worried about the rise of new variants in China’s massive COVID outbreak, but the World Health Organization says it has yet to see any new strains in the country.

In a statement released Wednesday, the WHO said that a sample of genomic data provided by China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that almost all cases were of BA.5.2 and BF.7 strains, which are two variants of Omicron. 

“These variants are known and have been circulating in other countries, and at present time no new variant has been reported by the China CDC,” the WHO said in its statement.

The WHO noted that the data from the China CDC matches what has been reported by other countries regarding arrivals from China. Last week, Italian health authorities said that half the passengers on two planes from China tested positive for COVID, but prime minister Giorgia Meloni later shared that all those who tested positive had already-known strains of Omicron.

Foreign governments have criticized China’s limited sharing of genomic data, warning that it would limit surveillance for new immune-evasive COVID variants. 

The U.S. will start requiring negative test results for passengers on flights originating from China on Thursday. The new testing requirement was imposed in part due to “the lack of adequate and transparent epidemiological and viral genomic sequence data,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said at a media briefing on Tuesday.

China has called these travel restrictions “unacceptable” and say they “lack scientific basis.” 

‘Underrepresent the true impact of the disease’

The World Health Organization in its statement highlighted “the critical need for and importance of additional analysis as well as sharing of sequence data to understand the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and the emergence of concerning mutations or variants.”

In a separate briefing, WHO officials said that Chinese data minimized the true scope of its COVID outbreak. 

Current Chinese numbers “underrepresent the true impact of the disease,” especially regarding hospitalizations and deaths, said Mike Ryan, the WHO’s executive director for health emergencies. 

China narrowed its definition of a COVID death in December, choosing only to count COVID patients who specifically died from respiratory failure or pneumonia as “COVID deaths.” Yet a slew of obituaries of prominent businesspeople, academics, and celebrities imply a broader and more deadly outbreak, reports the Financial Times

“We continue to ask China for more rapid, regular, reliable data on hospitalizations and deaths, as well as more comprehensive, real-time viral sequencing,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said at the briefing

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