An unexplained pneumonia outbreak in Kazakhstan is likely to be the novel coronavirus, a World Health Organization (WHO) top official said late on Friday.
The executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, Michael Ryan, said in an online briefing from Geneva that he.thinks the cases “just have not been diagnosed correctly.”
The upward trajectory of COVID-19 in the country would support this, Ryan added.
On Thursday, the Chinese embassy in Kazakhstan warned its citizens of a deadly unidentified strain of pneumonia, after a “significant” rise in cases in June.
Initially, the statement released through its social media WeChat channel referred to “Kazakhstan pneumonia,” before changing the wording to “non-COVID pneumonia.”
Kazakhstan dismissed the claims as “fake news.”
The central Asian country has logged over 56,000 cases with 264 deaths. Its government imposed a second lockdown this week to try to stop the virus from spreading.
A problem with testing
Ryan said the WHO is working with authorities in the country to review X-rays and spot patterns of pneumonia cases to see if they were consistent with COVID-19.
The health body is looking at the actual testing and the quality of testing to ensure that there haven’t been false negative tests, he added.
While the WHO expects many cases to be misdiagnosed COVID-19, the body was “keeping an open mind.”
The pneumonia outbreak in Kazakhstan had caused 1,772 deaths in the first half of 2020 and “628 in June alone,” according to the Chinese embassy.
State news agency Kazinform had reported a spike in pneumonia cases in June, with more than twice the number of cases than during the same period in 2019.
Cases in which COVID-19 symptoms were present but the patients tested negative had been classified as pneumonia, said the country’s health ministry in a statement, adding that this falls within WHO guidelines.