Kazakhstan rejects Chinese warning over pneumonia outbreak

Kazakhstan's health officials on Friday dismissed a Chinese claim that the Central Asian country is facing an outbreak of pneumonia more deadly than the new coronavirus.

Central Asian nation has over 53,000 coronavirus cases, including 264 deaths from COVID-19

Health workers hold testing kits at a mobile testing station for COVID-19 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on June 17. The country's Health Ministry says a Chinese Embassy warning to its citizens about an outbreak of pneumonia isn't consistent with reality. (Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters)

Kazakhstan's health officials on Friday dismissed a Chinese claim that the Central Asian country is facing an outbreak of pneumonia more deadly than the new coronavirus.

The Kazakh denial follows a notice issued Thursday by the Chinese Embassy that warned its citizens about an outbreak of pneumonia in the ex-Soviet nation with a death rate higher than that from coronavirus-induced pneumonia.

"This information doesn't conform to reality," Kazakhstan's Health Ministry said in a statement.

It said that the country's statistics on pneumonia include patients who tested negative for the coronavirus but had symptoms compatible with the COVID-19 illness.

According to official data, the number of pneumonia cases has increased by 55 per cent in the first half of the year, compared with the same period in 2019 — from 63,436 to 98,546.

However, Health Minister Alexei Tsoi said at a briefing Thursday, mortality from pneumonia this year fell from last year's levels — from 1,780 deaths in the first half of 2019 to 1,172 in the first half of 2020.

The ministry said its tallies of bacterial, fungal and viral pneumonia infections, which also included cases of unclear causes, were in line with World Health Organization guidelines.

The energy-rich Central Asian nation quickly introduced regional lockdown and travel restrictions to stem the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has faced a rise in infections after it lifted the restrictions in May.

In late June, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev fired the nation's health minister, blaming him for flaws that helped trigger a second wave of contagion.

Kazakh authorities have imposed a two-week nationwide lockdown starting Sunday to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.

The country so far has registered over 53,000 cases, including 264 deaths.

Asked to comment on Kazakhstan's denial of the Chinese Embassy's claim, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian refrained from comment, saying that Beijing hopes to receive more information.

"China looks forward to continuing co-operation with Kazakhstan to jointly fight the epidemic and safeguard public health in both countries," he said.

WATCH | Pneumonia in Kazakhstan likely related to COVID-19: WHO

Many of the pneumonia cases in Kazakhstan are likely undiagnosed cases of COVID-19, says the World Health Organization's Dr. Michael Ryan. 2:38

Mike Ryan, head of the WHO's emergencies program, told journalists on Friday that the cases in Kazakhstan are on WHO's radar.

Given the country's surge in COVID-19 cases in the last seven days, there's a likely explanation, he said.

"The upward trajectory of COVID-19 in the country would suggest that many of these cases are in fact undiagnosed cases of COVID-19," Ryan said.

Ryan said WHO is keeping an open mind and teams will checks for false negative COVID-19 tests and X-ray patterns.

Clusters of atypical pneumonia can occur at any time from other causes such as bacteria that present as Legionnaires' disease or influenza.

With files from Reuters and CBC News

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