Kazakhstan is facing a deadly "unknown pneumonia” more dangerous than coronavirus, China has claimed.
The alert comes as the Kazakh authorities have admitted both a “second wave” spike in Covid-19 but also a sharp rise in pneumonia cases.
The Kazakh health ministry today insisted the Chinese claim was "not true" despite an apparent surge in cases not confirmed as coronavirus.
And the ex-Soviet state has gone into lockdown with the president issuing a “don’t panic” message while also demanding strict adherence to the rules.
Some 28,000 pneumonia patients with negative coronavirus tests are hospitalised in Kazakhstan, says deputy health minister Azhar Giniyat.
A picture shows relatives queuing outside a morgue in the largest city Almaty to collect the bodies of relatives.
One of the pneumonia dead is chief sanitary doctor of Almaty region Kairat Baimukhambetov, 64, who had been a key figure in the country’s battle against the pandemic, it was confirmed today.
China, which borders the country, has expressed deep concern over the “unknown pneumonia” and issued a warning from its embassy in capital Nursultan alleging: "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.”
While saying the Chinese reports were not true, the Kazakh health minister Alexei Tsoi acknowledged his country faced numerous cases of “viral pneumonia of unspecified etiology”.
China went significantly further than Kazakhstan in its claims about the rampant pneumonia and so far there is no independent evidence on whether the cases are related to coronavirus or a separate strain.
Kazakhstan today said it has not ruled out that those ill with the ‘mystery’ pneumonia could be suffering from Covid-19 but the initial tests are not showing the virus.
“This is in principle permissible, because a coronavirus infection descends from the upper to the lower respiratory tract, and the PCR test does not always show a (positive) result,” said chief sanitary officer Aizhan Esmagambetova.
“Today we do not have data that would confirm that our tests are invalid or the studies are conducted with some errors,” she added.
Health officials admitted pneumonia cases had "increased 2.2 times in June compared to the same period of 2019”.
Saule Kisikova, health care department chief in capital Nursultan, told Kazinform news agency: "Some 300 people diagnosed with pneumonia are being hospitalised every day.”
On top of this, the country - which also borders Russia - has just recorded a new daily record of coronavirus cases with an official rise of 1,962 on Thursday.
China pointed to evidence that Atyrau and Aktobe provinces and Shymkent city had seen significant spikes in pneumonia cases since mid-June.
Some 500 non-Covid-19 pneumonia cases had been recorded in the three places, with 30-plus patients in a critical condition.
Mangistau and Pavlodar regions have also seen a rise in deaths from pneumonia.
Aktobe, Karaganda, Zhambyl and Turkestan regions, and Shymkent city have seen a surge in hospitalisations with pneumonia.
The country is urgently purchasing an additional 1,600 ventilators and 800 ambulances to cope with the alarming increase, say reports.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev in a televised address warned: “It is now crucial to avoid panic in society.”
He blasted officials for failing to ensure restrictions were effective, claiming carelessness had led to the current crisis.
“We are essentially dealing with a second wave of coronavirus, coupled with a sharp increase in pneumonia infections,” he said.
“The threat of coronavirus should not be underestimated. It’s wrong to keep thinking it is a common flu, it is a much more insidious and dangerous disease,” he said.
He demanded an end to the stockpiling of medicines.
There had been fears about his strongman predecessor Nursultan Nazarbaev, 80, but he has been confirmed clear of Covid-19.