Chinese officials have warned an "unknown pneumonia" deadlier than COVID-19 has killed almost 2,000 people in Kazakhstan this year, in a claim denied by the Central Asian country's government.
The Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan wrote in an alert to its citizens that 1,772 people had been killed by an "unknown pneumonia," including Chinese citizens, CNN reported
Cases have been rising since mid-June, according to the statement, and 628 people died last month. The regions of Atyrau, Aktobe and Shymkent were those affected.
"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," the statement said, according to the South China Morning Post.
Both CNN and the South China Morning Post reported the statement used the wording "unknown virus." It was unclear what lead them to make this claim.
The statement said officials have reported hundreds of cases per day in some parts of the country. The embassy told residents to avoid going outside and to crowded public places. They also advised taking precautionary measures such as wearing a mask, disinfecting their environment, handwashing, and ventilating buildings, CNN reported.
However, Kazakhstan's healthcare ministry described Chinese media reports on the "unknown pneumonia" as "fake news" and "not consistent with reality" on its website.
The ministry said cases of bacterial, fungal, and viral pneumonia, including cases of unclear cause, were in line with World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.
The ministry told Reuters: "The information published by some Chinese media regarding a new kind of pneumonia in Kazakhstan is incorrect."
According to Reuters, the Kazinform state news agency said pneumonia cases in the country increased "2.2 times" this June when compared with last.
This week, Kazakhstan locked down for the second time in a bid to prevent the spread of the coronavirus behind the COVID-19 pandemic.
China's statement comes amid one of the worst health crises in living memory. Since the COVID-19 pandemic started in China late last year, more than 12 million cases have been confirmed, according to Johns Hopkins University. Kazakhstan has reported over 54,000 cases, and 264 deaths. The U.S. leads the world in diagnoses and fatalities, at over 3 million cases and more than 133,000 deaths.
On Thursday, the director-general of the WHO Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the virus is not under control in most parts of the world, and the pandemic is "getting worse" and "accelerating." In the last six weeks, the total number of cases has doubled, he said.
Luca Anceschi, senior lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the U.K.'s Glasgow University, told Newsweek there is no evidence to suggest the claims made in Chinese media are true.
"There's no confirmation from Kazakhstani domestic sources to support reports that describe this strain of pneumonia as being an entirely new virus. My sense is that more time, better testing, and perhaps a revision of Kazakhstan's reporting practices are definitely needed to determine whether these pneumonia cases relate in fact to COVID-19 infection."
Asked about the motivations behind China's claim, Anceschi said speculating on the rationale is challenging, and the China-Kazakhstan relationship is complex.
"Yet, to date, it has developed through normally positive tones, at least so far as its state dimension has been concerned," he said. "The Kazakhstani government has been typically cautious in its declarations on China's role in the COVID-19 pandemic."
Anceschi added: "Nothing that could genuinely convince the Chinese government to embark in an anti-Kazakhstan crusade."
Professor Jane Duckett, an expert in Chinese public policy at the University of Glasgow, told Newsweek in an email that China's claim appeared to be unusual. As there isn't known to have been a rift between the country's two governments recently "it would seem to be the Chinese government just trying to inform their citizens."
Duckett said: "Kazakhstan's relations with China have been good in recent years, and they cooperate in part through the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Kazakhstan did earlier this year accept some ethnic Kazakhs from China seeking asylum, which would displease the Chinese authorities. But this (unknown pneumonia claims) would seem a strange way to respond to that."
This article has been updated with comments from Luca Anceschi and Jane Duckett.