Share data, WHO again tells China during COVID surge talks

The World Health Organization says it has ‘again’ asked Chinese officials for regular sharing of real-time data.

A Chinese medical worker sits in a COVID-19 testing booth at the Disney Resort in Shanghai, China, in November 2022
A Chinese medical worker sits in a COVID-19 testing booth at the Disney Resort in Shanghai, China, in November 2022 [File: Alex Plavevksi/EPA-EFE]

The World Health Organization (WHO) has again urged Chinese officials to share real-time data on the country’s surging COVID-19 infections so that other nations can respond effectively.

“WHO again asked for regular sharing of specific and real-time data on the epidemiological situation – including more genetic sequencing data, data on disease impact including hospitalisations, intensive care unit (ICU) admissions and deaths,” the United Nations agency said in a statement on Friday after a meeting between Chinese and WHO officials.

“WHO stressed the importance of monitoring and the timely publication of data to help China and the global community to formulate accurate risk assessments and to inform effective responses,” the world health body said.

A steep rise in infections in China following the country’s lifting of a strict “zero-COVID” policy has triggered concern around the globe and again raised questions about China’s data reporting, which continues to show low official infection figures and few deaths despite evidence that some hospitals and morgues are being overwhelmed.

The talks came after WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged Beijing to be more forthcoming on the pandemic situation.

The UN agency said the meeting was “to seek further information on the situation, and to offer WHO’s expertise and further support”.

‘Time of struggle’

In a televised speech to mark the New Year, President Xi Jinping called for more effort and unity as the country enters a “new phase” in its approach to combating the pandemic.

Xi said China had overcome unprecedented difficulties and challenges in the battle against COVID-19, and that its policies were “optimised” when the situation and time so required.

“Since the outbreak of the epidemic … the majority of cadres and masses, especially medical personnel, grassroots workers braved hardships and courageously persevered,” the president said.

“At present, the epidemic prevention and control is entering a new phase, it is still a time of struggle, everyone is persevering and working hard, and the dawn is ahead. Let’s work harder, persistence means victory, and unity means victory.”

These were Xi’s first public comments on COVID-19 since his government rolled back its stringent “zero-Covid” policy three weeks ago, which has also led to a surge in infections.

The strict measures triggered unprecedented public protests, marking the strongest show of public defiance in Xi’s decade-long presidency.

Meanwhile, the WHO said that officials from China’s National Health Commission and the National Disease Control and Prevention Administration have briefed the UN body on China’s evolving strategy and actions on epidemiology, variant monitoring, vaccination, clinical care, communication, and research and development.

“WHO reiterated the importance of vaccination and boosters to protect against severe disease and death for people at higher risk,” the Geneva-based organisation said.

“WHO called on China to strengthen viral sequencing, clinical management and impact assessment, and expressed willingness to provide support on these areas, as well as on risk communications on vaccination to counter hesitancy.”

The UN agency said Chinese scientists were invited to engage more closely in WHO-led COVID-19 expert networks and asked them to present detailed data at a virus evolution advisory group meeting on Tuesday.

In the wake of widespread anti-lockdown protests, Chinese authorities announced that they had abandoned strict measures to contain the virus, including opening up to international visitors and lifting limits on Chinese people travelling abroad. The United States, South Korea, India, Italy, Japan and Taiwan, among others, have imposed COVID test requirements for travellers from China.

The new surge in cases comes almost exactly three years since the first coronavirus infections were recorded in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Since then, more than 650 million confirmed COVID cases and more than 6.6 million deaths have been reported, though the UN health agency acknowledges this will be a vast undercount.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies