China has insisted the data it publishes on Covid-19 deaths has always been transparent, state media reported, despite the official figures being tiny compared with other countries and its hospitals overwhelmed with infections.

Beijing’s release of all virus information was done “in the spirit of openness”, a top health chief said at a press briefing held by China’s State Council, Xinhua reported late Thursday.

Patients with Covid-19 lay in beds at Tangshan Gongren Hospital in China's northeastern city of Tangshan on December 30, 2022.
Patients with Covid-19 lay in beds at Tangshan Gongren Hospital in China’s northeastern city of Tangshan on December 30, 2022. (Photo by Noel Celis / AFP)

A national disease control body said there were about 5,500 new local cases and one death on Friday, but with the end of mass testing and the narrowing of criteria for what counts as a Covid fatality, those numbers are no longer believed to reflect reality. Some experts estimate there may be as many as 9,000 daily deaths.

“China has always been publishing information on Covid-19 deaths and severe cases in the spirit of openness and transparency,” said Jiao Yahui from the National Health Commission (NHC) told reporters on Thursday.

Jiao said that China counts Covid-19 deaths only as cases of people who died of respiratory failure induced by the virus after testing positive with a nucleic acid test, rather than other countries that include all deaths within 28 days of positive tests. 

“China has always been committed to the scientific criteria for judging Covid-19 deaths, from beginning to end, which are in line with the international criteria,” Jiao said.

The NHC said last week it would no longer release an official daily Covid death toll.

Health risk analysis firm Airfinity said it currently estimates 9,000 daily deaths and 1.8 million infections per day in China, while it also expects 1.7 million fatalities across the country by the end of April 2023.

The Britain-based researchers said its model was based on data from China’s regional provinces, before changes to reporting infections were implemented, combined with case growth rates from other former zero-Covid countries when they lifted restrictions.

China said this week it would end mandatory quarantine on arrival, after earlier in the month announcing it had abandoned a raft of tough measures to contain the coronavirus.

The world’s most-populous country will downgrade its management of Covid-19 from January 8, treating it as a Class B infection, rather than a more serious Class A infection.

HK Chinese covid expert liang wannian
Mainland expert Liang Wannian speaking with former Food and Health Secretary Sophia Chan. File Photo: HK Gov handout.

Liang Wannian, head of the NHC’s Covid response expert panel, called the moves appropriate, scientific and law-based, Xinhua reported.

The state news agency reported Liang as saying the shift does not mean China is letting the virus go, but that is instead directing resources to the most important areas of controlling the epidemic and treating infected people.

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