Don’t hit ‘pandemic panic button,’ scientists warn over China pneumonia report

People wearing masks to prevent coronavirus disease (COVID-19) walk on a street in Beijing, China, February 14, 2023. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang/File Photo Acquire Licensing Rights

LONDON, Nov 23 (Reuters) – Leading scientists urged caution on Thursday about fears of a new pandemic after the World Health Organization asked for more information from China on a rise in respiratory illnesses and pneumonia clusters among children.

“We have to be careful,” said Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist who advises the WHO on COVID-19. “We really need more information, especially diagnostic information.”

Concerns were first raised internationally by an alert issued on Tuesday by the monitoring service ProMED, part of the International Society for Infectious Diseases. It calls for more information on “Undiagnosed Pneumonia – China (Beijing, Liaoning)”.

The standard wording of the warning echoed the first-ever notification of what would become COVID-19, sent on December 30, 2019: “Undiagnosed pneumonia – China (Hubei).”

Scientists said the similarity of the two signals had raised as yet unfounded concerns that the spike might be caused by another emerging pathogen that could trigger a pandemic. They said that based on the information so far, it is more likely that there will be an increase in other common respiratory infections such as influenza, as seen in many parts of the world after the lifting of the COVID lockdown. It could also signal a resurgence of COVID itself.

WHO always requests information from countries when undiagnosed or unknown diseases are reported, which happens quite regularly. However, he doesn’t always issue a press release about it, as he did on Wednesday.

Brian McCloskey, a public health expert who is also advising the WHO on the pandemic, said: “What we are seeing is the WHO’s international health rules system in action,” referring to the rules governing how countries work with the WHO in potential outbreaks.

“I’m not going to push the pandemic button based on what we know so far, but I’ll be very anxious to see the WHO response from China and to see the WHO assessment after that,” he said.

Both the WHO and China faced questions about transparency in the early days of COVID. Since then, the WHO has also criticized China for hiding data on infections and deaths when it scrapped its “zero COVID” measures, as well as the origins of the pandemic.

China has 24 hours to respond to the WHO under the regulations.

However, some said it was unclear whether the reported illnesses were actually undiagnosed. The story that prompted ProMED’s warning came from FTV News in Taiwan on Tuesday. In China itself, there have recently been many reports of an increase in respiratory diseases, including among children.

Authorities there attributed it to the lifting of restrictions on COVID-19 and the circulation of viruses such as the flu, as well as mycoplasma pneumonia, a common bacterial infection that usually affects younger children.

“There is a plausible hypothesis that this could be what we have seen in other parts of the world when restrictions have been lifted,” Koopmans said, echoing the views of all scientists contacted by Reuters.

Virologist Tom Peacock of Imperial College London, who has closely followed the emergence of new coronavirus variants, said there were good tools available to catch emerging flu or coronaviruses “quite quickly”, so it seemed unlikely that this had happened under the radar.

“(I suspect) it could end up being something more common or a combination of things — say, COVID, flu, RSV — but we’re hoping to learn more soon,” he said.

Reporting by Jennifer Rigby; editing by Joe Mason and Christina Fincher

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Jenn reports on health issues affecting people around the world, from malaria to malnutrition. Part of the Health & Pharma team, recent notable articles include an investigation into healthcare for young transgender people in the UK, as well as stories of a rise in measles after COVID hit routine vaccination, and efforts to prevent the next pandemic. She previously worked at the Telegraph newspaper and Channel 4 News in the UK, as well as freelanced in Myanmar and the Czech Republic.

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