China COVID data shows no new variant, WHO says, easing some global fears

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[1/5] People wearing protective masks cross a street as China returns to work despite continuing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreaks in Shanghai, China, January 3, 2023. REUTERS/Aly Song

  • Virus spreading fast in China after policy U-turn
  • U.N. agency and others what more rapid access to data
  • Latest data from China's CDC show Omicron dominates
  • More countries seek pre-boarding tests from China arrivals
  • EU officials meet to coordinate China travel policy

BEIJING, Jan 4 (Reuters) - No new coronavirus variant has been found in China, data released by the World Health Organization showed on Wednesday, easing some concerns about an outbreak that has spread rapidly there since Beijing abruptly reversed its "zero COVID" policy.

The U.N. agency was releasing data provided by the Chinese Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a day after WHO officials met Chinese scientists amid global unease about the accuracy of China's reporting of an outbreak that has filled hospitals and overwhelmed some funeral homes.

China's People's Daily, the Communist Party's official newspaper, sought to rally worried citizens for what it calls a "final victory" over COVID-19, rebutting criticism of its policy of strict isolation that triggered rare protests last year.

Meanwhile, health officials abroad have been struggling to work out the scale of the outbreak and how to stop it spreading, with more countries introducing measures such pre-departure COVID tests for arrivals from China, moves that Beijing has criticised.

European Union health officials meet on Wednesday to discuss a coordinated response to it.

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a briefing the U.N. agency was continuing to seek more rapid and regular data from China on hospitalisations and deaths, adding that he was concerned for the lives of China's citizens.

Beijing's abrupt axing of ultra-strict COVID curbs last month has unleashed the virus on China's 1.4 billion people, who have little immunity after being shielded since the virus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan three years ago.

China's CDC analysis showed a predominance of Omicron lineages BA.5.2 and BF.7 among locally acquired infections, according to the data reported by the WHO.

Omicron is the dominant variant based on recent genomic sequencing, confirming what scientists had already said but which will allay concerns for now about a new variant emerging.

FUNERAL HOMES OVERWHELMED

Many Chinese funeral homes and hospitals say they are overwhelmed, and international health experts predict at least 1 million COVID-related deaths in China this year. China has reported five or fewer deaths a day since the policy U-turn.

"That is totally ridiculous," a 66-year-old Zhang, a Beijing resident who only gave his last name, said of the official toll.

"Four of my close relatives died. That's only from one family. I hope the government will be honest with the people and the rest of the world about what’s really happened here."

China's cabinet said on Wednesday it would step up medicine distribution and meet demand from medical institutions, nursing homes and rural areas, state media reported.

Beijing has hit back against some countries demanding visitors from China show pre-departure COVID tests, saying the rules were unreasonable and lacked a scientific basis.

Japan, the United States, Australia and several European states are among countries requiring such tests.

Willie Walsh, head of the world's biggest airline association IATA, criticised such "knee-jerk" measures that he said had not previously stopped the spread of a virus that had hammered airlines which are recovering from the pandemic.

China will stop requiring inbound travellers to quarantine from Jan. 8 but they must be tested before arrival.

China reported five new COVID deaths for Tuesday, bringing the official death toll to 5,258, very low by global standards.

British-based health data firm Airfinity has estimated about 9,000 people in China are probably dying each day from COVID.

Patients at Shanghai's Zhongshan hospital, many of them elderly, were crammed in halls on Tuesday between makeshift beds with people on oxygen ventilators and intravenous drips.

A Reuters witness counted seven hearses in the parking lot of Shanghai's Tongji hospital on Wednesday. Workers were seen carrying at least 18 yellow bags used to move bodies.

China's $17 trillion economy has grown at its slowest in nearly half a century amid the COVID disruptions.

But the yuan was at a four-month high against the dollar on Wednesday after Finance Minister Liu Kun promised to step up fiscal expansion. The central bank has also flagged support.

Reporting by Alessandro Diviggiano, Bernard Orr and Liz Lee in Beijing; Brenda Goh in Shanghai, Hyonhee Shin in Seoul and Kantaro Komiya in Tokyo; Writing by Marius Zaharia and Edmund Blair; Editing by Robert Birsel, William Maclean

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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