A Beijing health official has admitted that the ‘unknown pneumonia’ said to be sweeping across Kazakhstan is actually ‘likely to be Covid-19’.
The Chinese embassy in Kazakhstan had claimed the pneumonia outbreak ‘is more deadly than the novel coronavirus’ before the leading disease-control expert challenged the country’s own warning on state TV.
A British expert has also told MailOnline that the cases from Kazakhstan are likely to be undetected Covid-19 infections.
Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist of China’s CDC, said tonight that he believed the ‘unknown pneumonia’ was highly likely to be Covid-19 ‘from an epidemiological perspective’.
He said he had noticed the news and read through relevant information online.
Wu noted that it would be unlikely for a new infectious respiratory disease to break out in summer.
He also said that the available mortality rate of the ‘unknown pneumonia’ was similar to that of Covid-19.
The expert suspected that the coronavirus outbreak had put great pressure on the local medical workers, leading them to unable to diagnose many patients in time.
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist and oncologist at University of Warwick, told MailOnline it was ‘difficult to believe’ the pneumonia is not related to Covid-19.
Kazakhstan’s Health Ministry said it has recorded more than 32,000 cases of pneumonia between June 29 and July 5 alone, along with 451 deaths.
By comparison, the official number of coronavirus cases in Kazakhstan stands at 53,021, with 296 confirmed deaths from the disease.
Pictures and video showed people queuing outside a morgue in the largest city Almaty to collect the bodies of relatives.
Some 28,000 pneumonia patients with negative coronavirus tests are hospitalised in Kazakhstan, deputy health minister Azhar Giniyat said.
The Kazakh health ministry insisted on Friday the Chinese pneumonia claim was ‘not true’ despite an apparent surge in cases not confirmed as coronavirus.
And the ex-Soviet state has gone back into lockdown with the president issuing a ‘don’t panic’ message while also demanding strict adherence to lockdown rules.
The Chinese embassy stated that Kazakhstan saw 1,772 pneumonia deaths in the first half of the year, including 628 in June, some of whom were Chinese nationals.
The embassy’s statement originally referred to ‘Kazakhstan pneumonia’ but this wording was later changed to ‘non-COVID pneumonia’.
However, Professor Young indicated the pneumonia cases were likely to be Covid-19 cases.
He said: ‘[We] Need to be confident about the accuracy of the testing regime in Kazakhstan.
‘Also the pneumonia as detected on chest X-rays is very characteristic of Covid-19, so these need to be examined to determine whether the reported disease is Covid-19 or another type of pneumonia.’
One of the pneumonia dead is chief sanitary doctor of Almaty region Kairat Baimukhambetov, 64, who had been a key figure in the country’s battle against the coronavirus pandemic, it was confirmed on Friday.
China, which borders the country, has expressed deep concern over the ‘unknown pnuemonia’ and issued a warning from its embassy in the Kazakh capital Nursultan.
It alleged: ‘The death rate of this disease is much higher than the novel coronavirus.
‘The country’s health departments are conducting comparative research into the pneumonia virus, but have yet to identify the virus.’
Kazakhstan’s health ministry said Friday that the claim published by ‘Chinese media’ does not ‘correspond to reality’, without mentioning the embassy.
However, the Kazakh health minister Alexei Tsoi acknowledged his country faced numerous cases of ‘viral pneumonia of unspecified etiology [cause]’.
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 Organisation guidelines.
‘The information published by some Chinese media regarding a new kind of pneumonia in Kazakhstan is incorrect,’ the ministry said.
On Tuesday, state news agency Kazinform said the number of pneumonia cases ‘increased 2.2 times in June as compared to the same period of 2019’.
The Global Times tabloid run by China’s People’s Daily has said Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry ‘did not respond to questions about the Chinese embassy’s warning’.
China went significantly further than Kazakhstan in its claims about the rampant pneumonia and so far there is no independent evidence on whether the cases are related to coronavirus or a separate strain.
Kazakhstan said it has not ruled out that those ill with the ‘mystery’ pneumonia could be suffering from Covid-19 but the initial tests are not showing the virus.
‘This is in principle permissible, because a coronavirus infection descends from the upper to the lower respiratory tract, and the PCR test does not always show a [positive] result,’ said chief sanitary officer Aizhan Esmagambetova.
‘Today we do not have data that would confirm that our tests are invalid or the studies are conducted with some errors,’ she added.
PCR stands for polymerase chain reaction and the test exists to determine whether or not someone has coronavirus.
Saule Kisikova, health care department chief in capital Nursultan, told Kazinform news agency: ‘Some 300 people diagnosed with pneumonia are being hospitalised every day.’
On top of this, the country – which also borders Russia – has just recorded a new daily record of coronavirus cases with an official rise of 1,962 on Thursday.
Four days previously Kassym-Jomart Tokayev imposed a second round of restrictions to try to control the surge.
Kazakhstan went into a strict lockdown on March 16, but later lifted many of the restrictions on May 11.
Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states have been accused in recent weeks of underplaying the scale of their second wave of cases by classifying many as pneumonia.
Lack of good quality testing kits is widely cited as a reason for underreporting.
In an article covering the health ministry’s rebuttal, pro-government website Tengri News cited a doctor as saying the surge in pneumonia cases was ‘a manifestation of the coronavirus’.
China pointed to evidence that Atyrau and Aktobe provinces and Shymkent city had seen significant spikes in pneumonia cases since mid-June.
Some 500 non-Covid-19 pneumonia cases had been recorded in the three places, with 30-plus patients in a critical condition.
Mangistau and Pavlodar regions have also seen a rise in deaths from pneumonia.
Aktobe, Karaganda, Zhambyl and Turkestan regions, and Shymkent city have seen a surge in hospitalisations with pneumonia.
The country is urgently purchasing an additional 1,600 ventilators and 800 ambulances to cope with the alarming increase, say reports.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev in a televised address warned: ‘It is now crucial to avoid panic in society.’
He blasted officials for failing to ensure restrictions were effective, claiming carelessness had led to the current crisis.
‘We are essentially dealing with a second wave of coronavirus, coupled with a sharp increase in pneumonia infections,’ he said.
‘The threat of coronavirus should not be underestimated. It’s wrong to keep thinking it is a common flu, it is a much more insidious and dangerous disease,’ he said.
He demanded an end to the stockpiling of medicines.
There had been fears about his strongman predecessor Nursultan Nazarbaev, 80, but he has been confirmed clear of Covid-19.
China’s warning about the mystery pneumonia is oddly reminiscent of when Chinese scientists announced to the world in January that they had discovered a never-before-seen strain of coronavirus that resembled pneumonia, now known as SARS-CoV-2.
It’s currently unclear why the Chinese embassy has described the pneumonia as ‘unknown’.
Diplomats urged Chinese nationals to take the same precautions as they were with coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan and has infected more than 12 million people around the globe.
This includes people not leaving their homes unless necessary, wearing a face mask, practicing social distancing and washing hands thoroughly and often.
Chief sanitary officer Esmagambetova said the mortality rate from pneumonia has increased in Kazakhstan four times in June 2020 compared to the same time frame last year.
She added that many of those who have fallen ill were not diagnosed with COVID-19, reported RT News.
Tokayev said the nation was ‘in fact facing the second coronavirus wave coupled with a huge uptick in pneumonia cases,’ according to Russian news agency Tass.