US secretary of state Antony Blinken has called on China to maintain “transparency” as international alarm grows about a spiralling Covid-19 outbreak in the world’s most populous country.
On a call with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, Blinken “discussed the current Covid-19 situation, and . . . underscored the importance of transparency for the international community”, according to a US State Department summary of the call.
Various international groups and countries have recently raised the alarm over the outbreak in China, which this month abruptly scrapped many of its measures to contain the disease.
The changes, which included an end to mass testing and compulsory quarantine, were followed by a narrowing of the definition of what counts as a Covid death, contributing to a paucity of data on the outbreak that is worrying health authorities overseas.
The World Health Organization this week cautioned it was “very concerned” about China’s outbreak and urged Beijing to step up its vaccination programme. Officials in India have also raised concerns.
The WHO wanted more data on the severity of the disease, hospital admissions and occupancy rates at intensive care units to be made available, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said on Wednesday.
China’s official daily Covid case and death counts have plummeted despite the unwinding of the coronavirus curbs, with the country’s health commission reporting just seven fatalities since it announced its relaxation of Covid rules.
Zhang Wenhong, a top health official with the country’s National Center for Infectious Diseases, was quoted in Shanghai-based outlet The Paper on Thursday as saying the country expected infections to peak within a week.
The Chinese summary of the Blinken call made no mention of the pandemic. Wang Yi told Blinken that the US must “stop containing and suppressing China’s development”, according to the country’s foreign ministry.
China this week reduced its overall death toll from Covid by one, despite evidence of a huge increase in activity at funeral homes and hospital emergency rooms.
Official daily case counts, meanwhile, have plunged from a peak of about 40,000 in late November to about 2,000 to 3,000 a day this week, despite the lifting of lockdowns and scrapping of many testing and quarantine requirements this month.
“What I really want to know is the actual case numbers, and then also the other thing is what are the variants circulating in China,” said Leo Poon, head of the division of public health laboratory sciences at the University of Hong Kong, adding there was “very little information” about the evolution of the virus in the country.
“Of course, the virus is circulating in other regions as well . . . but the problem is other regions are actually doing sequencing and they share the data with global organisations.”
Pressure has been growing on China to expand its vaccine rollout to include foreign messenger RNA vaccines, amid mounting evidence that they provide superior and longer-lasting protection than their domestic inactivated counterparts.
Drugmaker BioNTech on Thursday said it had shipped about 11,500 doses of mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccines to China for use by German expatriates. The doses arrived in the country on Wednesday, it said.