With the world on edge over reports of new viral infections, even since the novel coronaviruses spread from a handful of cases being reported in Wuhan to infecting over 12 million around the world, China on Thursday sparked fear after its embassy in Kazakhstan warned of a new “unknown pneumonia” in Kazakhstan that it claimed was even more fatal than COVID-19.
The Chinese embassy had issued a warning to its citizens over a pneumonia of “unknown cause” that had killed 1,772 in Kazakhstan, including 628 in June alone, since the beginning of the year. While the statement initially described it as “Kazakhstan pneumonia”, the wording was later changed to non-COVID pneumonia. It said three cities had been affected by the virus, Atyrau, Aktobe and Shymkent, warning that Chinese nationals were among those who had died.
The Kazakh Health Ministry on Friday dubbed claims by the “Chinese media” as “fake news”.
"In response to these reports, the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Kazakhstan officially declares that this information does not correspond to reality," read a statement by the Kazakhstan health ministry.
The statement noted that Minister for Health Alexei Tsoy had referred to a rise in pneumonia cases in his Thursday briefing, speaking about pneumonia in the country as a whole, encompassing “bacterial, fungal, viral origin, including ‘viral pneumonia, unspecified etiology’ according to the ICD-10 classification.”
"WHO has introduced codes for pneumonia when the coronavirus is diagnosed clinically or epidemiologically in the International Classification of Diseases, ICD 10, for example, there is a symptom of frosted glass in the affected lungs, but the virus has not been confirmed in the laboratory," the ministry said.
At the briefing, Tsoy had said that registered cases of pneumonia had risen by over 300 per cent in June compared to the previous, from 7,964 to 32,724 cases; with deaths also rising by 129 per cent. The New York Times cited official data to show that the number of pneumonia cases had increased by 55 per cent in the first half of 2020 compared with the same period last year, from 63,436 to 98,546 cases.
While pneumonia cases include those have tested negative for coronavirus, the patients may still have COVID-19-like symptoms.
Kazakhstan has over 54,000 cases of COVID-19 and has registered 264 deaths. The country’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, warned that non-observance of quarantine measures had led to a second wave of infections. On Tuesday, he had said that around 28,000 pneumonia patients with negative coronavirus tests were currently hospitalised, with 98.9 per cent of them in moderate condition.
In the country's Turkestan region, an outbreak of pneumonia led to over 5,400 cases accroding to region's governor Umirzak Shukeyev, who said 2,954 has recovered, as reported by Kazakh news website Nur.kz.
The health ministry said that the categorisation of an “unspecified” pneumonia was in keeping with WHO guidelines “for the registration of pneumonia when the coronavirus infection is diagnosed clinically or epidemiologically but is not confirmed by laboratory testing."
However, the ministry did not specify how many of the pneumonia cases were probable cases of COVID-19.
Earlier, speaking to the South China Morning Post, the WHO said they were verifying the developments with Kazakhstan but added that they were not aware of any emerging disease.
“The ministry of health of Kazakhstan published a statement on July 10 clarifying that cases presenting with pneumonia are diagnosed according to ICD-10. This suggests they do not classify as emerging unknown disease. We are in the process of verifying with the ministry the COVID-19 confirmed cases.”
“There are a wide range of potential explanations for pneumonia, of which one is COVID-19 which we know is circulating in Kazakhstan,” the WHO said.
China’s warning comes as the country’s Centre for Disease Control blamed a European strain of the coronavirus for the recent wave of infections in Beijing.