By Jessie Yeung, Philip Wang and Martin Goillandeau, CNN
Updated: Fri, 10 Jul 2020 10:08:31 GMT
Authorities in Kazakhstan have denied a report published by Chinese officials that the country is experiencing an outbreak of "unknown pneumonia" potentially deadlier than the novel coronavirus.
On Thursday, the Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan issued a warning to citizens living in the Central Asian country that the pneumonia had killed more than 1,700 people.
"Kazakhstani Health Department and other agencies are conducting comparative research and have not defined the nature of the pneumonia virus," the statement said.
New cases of the unidentified pneumonia have been increasing significantly since mid-June across the country, said the embassy, adding that in some places, authorities are reporting hundreds of new cases a day.
In a statement on Friday, the Kazakhstan health ministry acknowledged the presence of "viral pneumonias of unspecified etiology," but denied that the outbreak was new or unknown.
"In response to these reports, the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Kazakhstan officially declares that this information does not correspond to reality," the statement read.
It added the "unspecified" pneumonia classification followed World Health Organization guidelines "for the registration of pneumonia when the coronavirus infection is diagnosed clinically or epidemiologically but is not confirmed by laboratory testing."
According to the embassy, the rise was concentrated in the regions of Atyrau, Aktobe and Shymkent, which together have almost 500 new cases and more than 30 critically ill patients.
The disease killed 1,772 people this year, some of whom were Chinese citizens, according to the embassy. A total of 628 of those deaths took place in June alone. "This disease is much deadlier than Covid-19," the statement said.
The number of pneumonia cases in the capital city Nursultan has more than doubled this June from the same time last year, according to Kazakhstan's prominent news agency Kazinform, which cited official data.
"Up to 200 people are admitted to hospitals every day. Over the last few days some 300 people diagnosed with pneumonia were taken to hospitals a day. Besides some receive treatment at home," said the head of the Nursultan healthcare department, Kazinform reported.
The Chinese embassy warned residents in the region to limit how much they went outside, and to avoid crowded public areas. It also encouraged preventative measures like wearing a mask, disinfecting spaces, washing hands frequently, and allowing good air circulation in indoor spaces.
CNN has been unable to independently verify the Chinese Embassy report and has reached out to Kazakhstan's Ministry of Healthcare for further details.
When asked about the outbreak on Friday, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs told reporters, "We would also like to get more information. China hopes to work together with Kazakhstan to fight the epidemic and to safeguard the two countries public health security."
In a statement posted on its social media, the Kazakhstan Health Ministry said Minister Aleksey Tsoy had spoken about a number of pneumonia cases nationwide at a briefing on Thursday. These cases included different types of bacterial, fungal and viral pneumonia -- including some of "unspecified etiology."
Tsoy told the briefing that all registered cases of pneumonia in the country rose by more than 300% in June compared to the same month in 2019, from 7,964 last year to 32,724 in 2020. Related deaths rose by 129%, from 274 in June 2019 to 628 in the same month this year.
The embassy warning came as Kazakhstan continues to battle a rise in Covid-19, which has infected 53,021 people and killed 264 in the country, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, the high-profile first president of Kazakhstan and current chairman of the country's Security Council, tested positive for Covid-19 last month.
Authorities implemented a second round of restrictions nationwide on July 5, in response to a dramatic surge in cases. Under these restrictions, international flights are grounded and inter-state road transportation is suspended, reported Chinese state-run media Xinhua. Cultural spaces, sports facilities, cinemas and salons are still closed, with the majority of government employees working from home.
There is now increasing demand for medical staff, hospital beds and emergency supplies, according to Xinhua, citing the country's health minister. If the situation deteriorates, officials warn they could tighten restrictions further.
This story has been updated to reflect the latest information from Kazakhstan health officials.