BEIJING, Jan 5 – U.S. President Joe Biden expressed concern over China’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, hours after the World Health Organization (WHO) said China was under-reporting deaths from the virus disease.
The United States is one of more than a dozen countries to impose restrictions on travelers from China as it lifted strict COVID controls last month that had protected its 1.4 billion people from the virus for three years.
Global health officials are now scrambling to deal with an outbreak that is filling hospitals and flooding some funeral homes, contradicting China’s low official death toll from the virus.
Mike Ryan, the WHO’s director of emergencies, said at a media briefing on Wednesday that the current figures released from China underrepresent the number of hospitalizations, intensive care patients and deaths.
Hours later, Biden said he was concerned about China’s handling of the epidemic.
“They’re very sensitive … when we suggest they haven’t been that forthcoming,” he told reporters on a visit to Kentucky.
The WHO’s comments on the lack of data were some of the most critical yet and could prompt a response from Beijing when it holds a regular State Department news conference later on Thursday.
The WHO’s remarks were not immediately available in Chinese state media on Thursday. In previous statements, the Chinese government downplayed the seriousness of the situation.
The state-run Global Times newspaper said in an article on Wednesday that COVID infections had peaked in several major cities, including the capital Beijing, citing interviews with doctors at major hospitals.
China reported one new mainland COVID-19 death on Wednesday, compared with five a day earlier, bringing its official death toll to 5,259.
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With one of the lowest COVID deaths in the world, China is routinely blamed for underreporting infections and deaths for political reasons.
Chinese health officials said only deaths caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure in patients who had the virus are classified as COVID deaths.
Methods of counting COVID-19 deaths have varied in different countries since the pandemic first broke out in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.
Still, disease experts outside China said their approach would miss several other widely recognized types of potentially deadly complications of COVID, 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 emergency measures. British healthcare company Airfinity estimates that about 9,000 people are likely to die from COVID every day in China.
Despite those concerns, Asian stocks ( .MIAPJ0000PUS ) rose on Thursday on investors’ hopes for China’s recovery from the pandemic.
“China’s reopening has a big impact … globally,” said Joanne Goh, investment strategist at DBS Bank in Singapore, as it not only boosts tourism and consumption, but may ease some of the supply chain crises we’ve seen in 2022.
“There will be hiccups along the way,” Goh said during a presentation of the outlook to reporters. “We’re giving it six months to adjust the process. But we don’t think it’s reversible.”
As countries try to gain more information about the extent and severity of the Chinese epidemic, some have imposed requirements for travelers from China to be tested for COVID.
European Union officials on Wednesday recommended that travelers from China to the 27-nation bloc test negative for COVID-19 before starting their trip.
Officials also called for testing and sequencing of sewage on planes arriving from China and at airports handling international flights, among other things.
China has criticized border controls imposed by other countries on its people as unreasonable and unscientific.
While China will no longer require incoming travelers to quarantine on January 8, it will still require them to take a COVID test before arrival.
Hong Kong residents have flooded clinics to get vaccinated against COVID-19 ahead of the expected reopening of the city’s borders with mainland China, which some fear will bring a spike in infections to the financial center.