BEIJING, Jan 3 (Reuters) - China's state media played down the severity on Tuesday of the COVID-19 wave surging over the country, with its scientists expected to give a briefing to the World Health Organization on the evolution of the virus later in the day.
China's abrupt U-turn on COVID controls on Dec. 7, as well as the accuracy of its case and mortality data, have come under increasing scrutiny at home and overseas and prompted some countries to impose travel curbs.
The policy shift followed protests over the "zero COVID" approach championed by President Xi Jinping, marking the strongest show of public defiance in his decade-old presidency and coinciding with the slowest growth in China in nearly half a century.
As the virus spreads mostly unchecked, funeral parlours are reporting a spike in demand for their services and international health experts predict at least one million deaths in the country this year.
China reported three new COVID deaths for Monday, up from one for Sunday. Its official death toll since the pandemic began now stands at 5,253.
In an article on Tuesday, People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, cited several Chinese experts as saying the illness caused by the virus was relatively mild for the vast majority of people.
"Severe and critical illnesses account for 3% to 4% of infected patients currently admitted to designated hospitals in Beijing," Tong Zhaohui, Vice President of Beijing Chaoyang Hospital, told the newspaper.
Kang Yan, head of West China Tianfu Hospital of Sichuan University, said that in the past three weeks, a total of 46 critically ill patients have been admitted to intensive care units, accounting for about 1% of symptomatic infections.
More than 80% of those living in the southwestern Sichuan province have been infected, local health authorities said.
The World Health Organization on Friday urged China's health officials to regularly share specific and real-time information on the COVID situation in the country.
The agency has invited Chinese scientists to present detailed data on viral sequencing at a meeting of a technical advisory group scheduled for Tuesday. It has also asked China to share more genetic sequencing data, as well as data on hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations.
The European Union has offered free COVID vaccines to China to help contain the outbreak, the Financial Times reported on Tuesday.
EU government health officials will hold talks on Wednesday on a coordinated response to China's outbreak, the Swedish EU presidency said on Monday.
The United States, France, Australia, India and others will require mandatory COVID tests on travellers from China, while Belgium said it will test wastewater from planes from China for new COVID variants.
China has rejected criticism of its COVID data and its state media has called the new curbs "discriminatory." Officials have also played down the risk of new variants saying any new mutations may be more infectious but cause less severe illness.
As the virus spreads, workers and shoppers across China are falling ill, raising worries about growth prospects in the world's second-largest economy that are weighing on Asian stocks.
Data on Tuesday showed China's factory activity shrank at a sharper pace in December as the COVID wave disrupted production and weighed on demand.
A "bushfire" of infections in China in the months ahead is likely to further hit its economy this year and drag on global growth, said the head of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva.
"China is entering the most dangerous weeks of the pandemic," warned analysts at Capital Economics.
"The authorities are making almost no efforts now to slow the spread of infections and, with the migration ahead of Lunar New Year getting started, any parts of the country not currently in a major COVID wave will be soon."
Mobility data suggested that economic activity was depressed nationwide and would likely remain so until the infection wave began to subside, they added.
China's Ministry of Culture and Tourism said the domestic tourism market saw 52.71 million trips during the New Year holiday, a year-on-year increase of only 0.44%. That was 43% of the 2019 levels, before the pandemic.
The revenue generated was over 26.52 billion yuan ($3.84 billion), up 4% year-on-year but only about 35% of the revenue created in 2019, the ministry said.
Expectations are higher for China's biggest holiday, the Lunar New Year, later this month, when some experts expect daily COVID cases to have already peaked in many parts of the country. Some hotels in the southern tourist resort of Sanya are fully booked for the period, Chinese media reported.
Reporting by Beijing and Shanghai bureaus; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Rju Gopalakrishnan
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