Is China Sharing Enough COVID-19 Information?

TAIPEI – As COVID-19 races through China, other countries and the World Health Organization are asking their government to share more comprehensive data on the outbreak. Some even say that many of the numbers it reports are meaningless.

Without basic data like the number of deaths, infections and severe cases, governments elsewhere have rolled out virus testing requirements for travelers from China. Beijing said the measures were not scientifically based and impending countermeasures.

It is of utmost importance whether new variants will emerge from the mass infection unfolding in China and spreading to other countries. The Delta and Omicron variants evolved in locations that also had large eruptions, which can be a breeding ground for new variants.

Here’s a look at what’s going on with China’s COVID-19 data:



Chinese health authorities release daily counts of new cases, severe cases and deaths, but these counts only include officially confirmed cases and uses a very narrow definition of COVID-related deaths.

China certainly conducts its own sample studies but doesn’t share them, said Ray Yip, who founded the US Centers for Disease Control’s China office.

The nationwide tally for Thursday was 9,548 new cases and five deaths, but some local governments are releasing much higher estimates just for their jurisdictions. Zhejiang, an east coast province, said Tuesday it was seeing about 1 million new cases every day.

If a variant occurs in an outbreak, genetic sequencing of the virus will find it.

Since the pandemic began, China has shared 4,144 sequences with GISAID, a global platform for coronavirus data. That’s just 0.04% of the reported caseload — a rate more than 100 times lower than in the United States and almost four times lower than in neighboring Mongolia.



So far, no new variants have appeared in the sequences shared by China. The versions fueling infections in China “closely resemble” those observed in other parts of the world since July, GISAID said. dr Gagandeep Kang, who studies viruses at the Christian Medical College of Vellore in India, agreed, saying there was nothing particularly concerning in the data so far.

That didn’t stop at least 10 countries – including the US, Canada, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, UK, France, Spain and Italy – from announcing virus testing requirements for passengers from China. The European Union strongly encouraged all its member states to do so this week.

Health officials have defended the tests as a surveillance measure that will help fill an information gap from China. This means countries can read any changes in the virus through testing, even if they don’t have complete data from China.

“We don’t need China to study this, all we have to do is test all people who come from China,” said Yip, the former public health official.

Canada and Belgium said they would check for viral particles in sewage on planes arriving from China.

“It’s like an early warning system for authorities to anticipate if there’s going to be a surge in infections,” said Dr. Khoo Yoong Khean, Research Fellow at the Duke-NUS Center of Outbreak in Singapore.



Chinese officials have repeatedly said they share information, pointing to the sequences given to GISAID and meetings with the WHO.

But WHO officials have repeatedly asked for more — not just on genetic sequencing, but also on hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed concern this week about the danger to life in China.

“Data remains essential for WHO to conduct regular, rapid and robust risk assessments of the global situation,” said the head of the UN health agency.

The Chinese government often has information from its own public, especially anything that negatively affects the ruling Communist Party. State media balked at the murky reports an increase in cremations and people are rushing from hospital to hospital to try and get treatment when the healthcare system is reaching capacity. Government officials have accused foreign media of playing up the situation.

Noting that South Africa’s early warning of Omicron had resulted in travel bans from the country, Khean said there was a need to foster an environment where countries can share data without fear of repercussions.


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Sarah Y. Kim

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