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China reports first COVID deaths in weeks as doubts gather over official count


China reported its first COVID-related deaths in weeks on Monday amid rising doubts over whether the official count was capturing the full toll of a disease that is ripping through cities after the government relaxed strict anti-virus controls.

Monday’s two deaths were the first to be reported by the National Health Commission (NHC) since Dec. 3, days before Beijing announced that it was lifting curbs which had largely kept the virus in check for three years but triggered widespread protests last month.

Though on Saturday, Reuters journalists witnessed hearses lined up outside a designated COVID-19 crematorium in Beijing and workers in hazmat suits carrying the dead inside the facility. Reuters could not immediately establish if the deaths were due to COVID.

A hashtag on the two reported COVID deaths quickly became the top trending topic on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform on Monday morning.

“What is the point of incomplete statistics?” asked one user. “Isn’t this cheating the public?,” wrote another.

The NHC did not immediately respond to questions from Reuters on the accuracy of its data.

Officially China has suffered just 5,237 COVID-related deaths during the pandemic, including the latest two fatalities, a tiny fraction of its 1.4 billion population and very low by global standards.

But health experts have said China may pay a price for taking such stringent measures to shield a population that now lacks natural immunity to COVID-19 and has low vaccination rates among the elderly.

Some fear China’s COVID death toll could rise above 1.5 million in coming months.

Respected Chinese news outlet Caixin on Friday reported that two state media journalists had died after contracting COVID, and then on Saturday that a 23-year-old medical student had also died. It was not immediately clear which, if any, of these deaths were included in official death tolls.

“The (official) number is clearly an undercount of COVID deaths,” said Yanzhong Huang, a global health specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a U.S. think tank.

That “may reflect the lack of state ability to effectively track and monitor the disease situation on the ground after the collapse of the mass PCR testing regime, but it may also be driven by efforts to avoid mass panic over the surge of COVID deaths,” he said.

The NHC reported 1,995 symptomatic infections for Dec. 18, compared with 2,097 a day earlier.

But infection rates have also become an unreliable guide as far less mandatory PCR testing is being conducted following the recent easing. The NHC stopped reporting asymptomatic cases last week citing the testing drop.

China’s stocks fell and the yuan eased against the dollar on Monday, as investors grew concerned that surging COVID-19 cases would further weigh on the world’s second largest economy despite pledges of government support.

The virus was also sweeping through trading floors in Beijing and spreading fast in the financial hub of Shanghai, with illness and absence thinning already light trade and forcing regulators to cancel a weekly meeting vetting public share sales.

Japanese chipmaker Renesas Electronics Corp (6723.T) said on Monday it had suspended work at its Beijing plant due to COVID-19 infections.

China’s chief epidemiologist Wu Zunyou on Saturday said the country was in the throes of the first of three COVID waves expected this winter, which was more in line with what people said they are experiencing on the ground.

“I’d say sixty to seventy percent of my colleagues…are infected right now,” Liu, a 37-year-old university canteen worker in Beijing, told Reuters, requesting to be identified by his surname.

While top officials have been downplaying the threat posed by the new Omicron strain of the virus in recent weeks, authorities remain concerned about the elderly, who have been reluctant to get vaccinated.

Officially, China’s vaccination rate is above 90%, but the rate for adults who have received booster doses of the vaccine drops to 57.9%, and to 42.3% for people aged 80 and above, according to government data.

In the Shijingshan district of Beijing, medical workers have been going door-to-door offering to vaccinate elderly residents in their homes, China’s Xinhua news agency reported on Sunday.

But it is not just the elderly that are wary of vaccines.

“I don’t trust it,” Candice, a 28-year-old headhunter in Shenzhen told Reuters, citing stories from friends about health impacts, as well as similar health warnings on social media. Candice spoke on condition that only her first name be used.

Overseas-developed vaccines are unavailable in mainland China to the general public, which has relied on inactivated shots by local manufacturers for its vaccine rollout.

While China’s medical community in general doesn’t doubt the safety of China’s vaccines, some say questions remain over their efficacy compared to foreign-made mRNA counterparts.

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