Kazakhstan denies China's claim of new deadly virus

By: AFP      Published: 06:19 PM, 10 Jul, 2020
Kazakhstan denies China's claim of new deadly virus

Kazakhstan on Friday denied a claim by China's embassy that a pneumonia outbreak more deadly than the novel coronavirus is rampaging through the Central Asian country.

In an alert for Chinese citizens posted on the embassy's website Thursday, Beijing warned of a disease with "a mortality rate far higher than COVID-19". The statement said the pneumonia outbreak had caused 1,772 deaths in the first half of 2020 and "628 in June alone".

The statement originally referred to "Kazakhstan pneumonia" but this wording was later changed to "non-COVID pneumonia". The embassy statement mentioned three provincial cities -- Atyrau, Aktobe and Shymkent -- saying the disease has taken hold there and Chinese nationals are among those who have died from it.

The Kazakh health ministry is studying the disease and comparing it to COVID-19, the embassy said. Kazakhstan's health ministry said Friday that the claim published by "Chinese media" did not "correspond to reality", without mentioning the embassy.

The ministry acknowledged it had classified as pneumonia cases where COVID-19 symptoms were present but the patients tested negative, arguing that this falls within World Health Organization guidelines. Asked about the embassy's statement on Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told journalists China "also wishes to find out more information".

He added that China "hopes to continue to work together with Kazakhstan to fight the epidemic and safeguard both countries' public health and safety". The oil-rich country bordering China and Russia has seen virus cases grow more than fivefold since lifting lockdown measures in May and has confirmed 54,747 cases.

Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries have been accused in recent weeks of underplaying the scale of their second wave of cases by classifying many as pneumonia. Lack of good quality testing kits is widely cited as a reason for underreporting.

In an article covering the health ministry's rebuttal, pro-government website Tengri News cited a doctor as saying the surge in pneumonia cases was "a manifestation of the coronavirus". In neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, the health ministry said this week that it would begin including patients with pneumonia in its official coronavirus count.

Kyrgyz Health Minister Sabyrzhan Abdykarimov and his deputy Nurbolot Usenbayev have both been hospitalised with coronavirus symptoms but only the deputy minister tested positive for the virus, the health ministry said on Friday. Abdykarimov tested negative.

Last month, the foreign ministry of repressive Turkmenistan, another Central Asian country, dismissed as "fake news" a US embassy health alert warning Americans of potential coronavirus cases in the country.

Turkmenistan is one of the few countries yet to declare a single coronavirus case. The US embassy said it had "received reports of local citizens with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 undergoing COVID-19 testing and being placed in quarantine in infectious diseases hospitals for up to 14 days".