China defends COVID response after WHO concerns

STORY: China defended its handling of its raging COVID-19 outbreak on Thursday (January 5), a day after U.S. President Joe Biden voiced concern and the World Health Organization (WHO) said Beijing was under-reporting virus deaths.

China's foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said the country's "epidemic situation is controllable."

"Facts have proved that China has always maintained close communications with the World Health Organization (WHO) and shared the relevant information and data in a timely manner."

With one of the lowest official COVID death tolls in the world, China has been routinely accused of under-reporting for political reasons.

In December last year, the WHO said it had received no data from China on new COVID hospitalizations since Beijing lifted its zero-COVID policy.

It prompted some health experts to question whether it might be hiding information on the extent of its outbreak.

In the WHO's latest weekly report, figures on Thursday (January 5) show a nearly 50% increase of new COVID-19 hospitalization in the week to January 1.

And 218,019 new weekly COVID cases as of January 1, adding that gaps in data might be due to authorities simply struggling to tally cases.

Mike Ryan, the WHO's emergencies director said on Wednesday (January 4) that Chinese officials were under-representing data on several fronts.

"We believe that the current numbers that are being published from China underrepresent the true impact of the disease in terms of hospital admissions, in terms of ICU admissions and, particularly, in terms of deaths."

Hours later, Biden also raised concern about China's handling of a COVID outbreak that is filling hospitals and overwhelming some funeral homes.

"China is not been, I know they’re very sensitive about, when we suggest they haven't been that forthcoming.”

The French health minister also voiced similar concerns.

China's government has downplayed the severity of the situation in recent days.

As hundreds of mourners held memorial services for their loved ones at a crematorium in Shanghai on Thursday (January 5).

And in Hong Kong, residents rushed to get vaccinated as China prepares to reopen the border with its special administrative region on Sunday for the first time in three years.

Travellers will then also be welcomed from around the world - without the need to quarantine.

But the United States and more than a dozen other countries have now imposed restrictions on those arriving from China.