China changes definition of Covid deaths as cases rise | coronavirus

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China has switched to a narrower definition of Covid deaths, which will drastically reduce its death statistics as cases rise following the relaxation of Covid-zero rules.

Authorities reported no new deaths in the latest Covid statistics update on Wednesday, despite widespread reports and images of overwhelmed hospitals and crematoria and queues of hearses. The official death toll since the start of the pandemic in Wuhan three years ago took a dip on Wednesday and now stands at 5,241 – an extremely low number compared to many less populous countries.

Infectious disease specialist Prof. Wang Guiqiang told a State Council news conference on Tuesday that the National Health Commission had recently revised its guidelines to “scientifically and objectively reflect the deaths caused by the coronavirus pandemic”, classifying only deaths caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure. in patients. who had the virus as deaths from Covid.

“Deaths caused by other diseases, such as cardiovascular or cerebrovascular diseases and heart attacks, are not classified as deaths caused by coronavirus,” Wang said.

He said that, compared to the first Covid-19 outbreak in early 2020, when most patients died of respiratory failure, “the leading cause of death from Omicron infection is the underlying illnesses. Respiratory failure caused directly by the new coronavirus infection is rare.”

But the new method is at odds with guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO), which says many countries now use “excess mortality” as a more accurate measure of the true impact of the pandemic.

Excess mortality is defined as the difference in the total number of deaths in a crisis compared to those expected under normal conditions. Excess mortality from Covid-19 is responsible for both the total number of deaths attributed directly to the virus and the indirect impact, such as disruption of essential health services or travel disruptions, says the WHO.

By those criteria, China’s new method of accounting for Covid deaths, which excludes underlying illnesses, would make it difficult to compare fatalities with other countries.

Professor Chung Kim-wah, a social scientist at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, told the Guardian that the communist party often tweaked concepts and definitions to justify its latest policies. 🇧🇷[They] it doesn’t give the impression that many people are dying, so this would be seen as a result of the government’s policy change,” he said.

Since the abrupt easing of the strict Covid-10 regime following unprecedented protests against the restrictions, cases have skyrocketed in China. A full picture of the impact is difficult to assess, but the narrow parameters for attributing the deaths to the virus mean the official count – less than 10 this week – is at odds with widespread anecdotal reports of deaths and high traffic at funeral homes.

Benjamin Mazer, an assistant professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins University, said the classification would miss “a lot of cases,” especially as people vaccinated, including Chinese vaccines, are less likely to die of pneumonia. Blood clots, heart problems and sepsis – the body’s extreme response to infection – have caused countless deaths among Covid patients around the world.

Wang Guangfa, a leading respiratory expert, predicted an increase in severe Covid cases in Beijing in the next fortnight, according to the state-run Global Times newspaper. Wang expected the Covid wave to peak in late January, with life likely to return to normal in late February or early March.

There have been reports of shortages of vital drugs across China. Photography: Wu Hao/EPA

He urged medical institutions to expand intensive care units and increase emergency and critical care resources to ensure there is no disruption to the impending wave of infections.

Several leading WHO scientists and consultants have warned that it may be too early to declare a global end to the Covid-19 pandemic emergency because of a potentially devastating wave that will reach China.

His views represent a shift since China began to scrap its Covid-zero policy last week after an unprecedented spike in infections and public outcry. Projections suggest the world’s second-largest economy could face more than a million deaths in 2023 after changing course.

China’s Covid-zero approach has kept infections and deaths comparatively low among its population of 1.4 billion, but the relaxation of rules has changed the global landscape, experts said.

“The question is whether you can call it post-pandemic when such a significant part of the world is actually entering its second wave,” said Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, who sits on a WHO committee tasked with advising on the status of Covid. emergency. It is clear that we are in a very different phase [of the pandemic]but in my opinion, this pending wave in China is a wildcard.”

China’s NHC also played down international concern about the possibility of virus mutations, saying the likelihood of new, more pathogenic strains was low.

Paul Tambyah, president of the Asia-Pacific Society for Clinical and Infection Microbiology, supported this view. “I don’t think this is a threat to the world,” he told Reuters. “Chances are that the virus behaves like any other human virus and adapts to the environment in which it circulates, becoming more transmissible and less virulent.”

Reuters contributed to this report

An earlier version of this article was amended on December 21, 2022 to remove a headline reference that could be understood to be an official WHO statement, which was not the case.