In the previous days, China had warned its citizens living in Kazakhstan of a local "unknown pneumonia" which, it said, has a "much higher" fatality rate than the COVID-19 disease. "The unknown pneumonia in Kazakhstan caused 1,772 deaths in the first six months of the year, including 628 people in June alone," the Chinese embassy in the central Asian country said in a statement on its WeChat platform on Thursday, adding that the fatalities also included Chinese citizens.
"The fatality rate of the disease is much higher than COVID-19," state-run Global Times quoted the embassy's statement on Friday. "Many organisations including Kazakhstan's health department are studying the virus of this pneumonia," the embassy said.
Now, Michael Ryan, the emergencies chief of the World Health Organisation, has said the agency believes the unexplained pneumonia outbreak is likely due to the coronavirus. Kazakh authorities have reported more than 10,000 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in the last week and just under 50,000 cases and 264 deaths as of Tuesday.
"We're looking at the actual testing and the quality of testing to make sure that there haven't been false negative tests for some of those other pneumonias that are provisionally tested negative," Ryan said. He added that many pneumonia cases were likely to be COVID-19 and just have not been diagnosed correctly. Ryan says WHO was working with local authorities to review X-rays and look at the pattern of pneumonia cases to see if they were consistent with COVID-19.
"While we believe that many of these cases will be diagnosed as COVID-19, we keep an open mind," says Ryan. A WHO team is already in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan's health ministry had termed the Chinese embassy statement as "fake news." "The information published by some Chinese media regarding a new kind of pneumonia in Kazakhstan is incorrect," Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post quoted the ministry as saying. It said its tallies of bacterial, fungal and viral pneumonia infections, which also included cases of unclear causes, were in line with WHO guidelines. "The information published by some Chinese media regarding a new kind of pneumonia in Kazakhstan is incorrect," the ministry said.
Kazakhstan borders China's northwest Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
Kazakhstan's healthcare minister on Wednesday said that the number of patients sickened by the pneumonia is two to three times more than those who have been infected with the COVID-19, the report quoted Kazakh media as saying.
Kazakhstan has reported 51,059 cases of COVID-19, including 264 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University's coronavirus resource centre.
-Inputs from agencies