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An unknown pneumonia that’s deadlier than coronavirus was just discovered

Published Jul 10th, 2020 11:03AM EDT
Coronavirus Symptoms
Image: Sputnik via AP

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  • The novel coronavirus pandemic is still out of control in many regions, but Kazakhstan may also be fighting a second viral outbreak.
  • The Chinese embassy in the country warned of an “unknown pneumonia” that’s supposedly even deadlier than COVID-19.
  • It’s unclear at this time what causes this new pneumonia of unknown origin.

As if the novel coronavirus pandemic wasn’t enough to ruin normal life, 2020 brought us additional contagious scares that we weren’t expecting. Congo experienced a new Ebola outbreak just as it was trying to end a years-long epidemic hundreds of miles away from the secondary flare-up, and China just announced the reappearance of the bubonic plague in Inner Mongolia. Add a warning from the CDC that the tick season could be even worse this year, combined with reports that mosquitos can carry the dengue fever (Florida) or the West Nile virus (Massachusetts and Texas), and you’ve got a near-complete picture of this year’s dangerous infectious diseases. But 2020 is far from over, and Chinese authorities in Kazakhstan are warning that the country is dealing with an “unknown pneumonia” that’s even deadlier than the coronavirus.

Of all these illnesses, it’s only COVID-19 that’s out of control because of the particularities of the novel coronavirus. SARS-CoV-2 is highly infectious and symptoms can take more than a week to appear, if they do at all. COVID-19 started in China in late December when word got out that an unknown pneumonia of animal origin had infected several people. Chinese authorities took their time to acknowledge human-to-human transmission and to close Wuhan, and this explains the lack of trust from other countries in China’s story of the early days of the pandemic.

With that in mind, it’s a bit ironic that it’s the Chinese embassy in Kazakhstan that’s reporting the new cases of a different “unknown pneumonia” in the country that’s reportedly deadlier than COVID-19. It’s unclear whether the symptoms of this new infectious disease differ from COVID-19.

“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 embassy said in a warning to Chinese citizens in the country, per South China Morning Post.

Officials from Kazakhstan have only referred to the new illness as pneumonia, leaving “unknown” out of the description of the disease. It’s unclear why the Chinese embassy described the illness that way. The website cited local media reports in the country about significant spikes of pneumonia cases since mid-June in the provinces of Atyrau and Aktobe, as well as in the city of Shymkent. The city is 930 miles away from the capital, and Aktobe is about 205 miles away from the capital.

The embassy said there have been nearly 500 pneumonia cases in the three regions, with over 30 people in critical condition. There’s no mention of the number of deaths that can be attributed to this new pneumonia. The coronavirus also leads to the same medical condition, which is why Chinese authorities also initially referred to COVID-19 initially as “unknown pneumonia.”

Kazakhstan reported a total of more than 54,000 coronavirus cases as of Friday morning and 264 deaths. In response to the embassy’s report, the government acknowledged that health officials are looking for the etiology of the new illness, but denied the Chinese claims.

“Kazakhstani Health Department and other agencies are conducting comparative research and have not defined the nature of the pneumonia virus,” a statement said. “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 officials also said the “unspecified” pneumonia classification is in line with WHO guidelines “for the registration of pneumonia when the coronavirus infection is diagnosed clinically or epidemiologically but is not confirmed by laboratory testing.” In other words, at least some of these cases may be COVID-19 patients who did not receive a PCR test.

“Some 300 people diagnosed with pneumonia are being hospitalized every day,” health care department chief Saule Kisikova told news agency Kazinform. The report further said that there have been 1,700 pneumonia cases in the country in June, two times higher than the same month last year. The same official said doctors were finding 600 people per day with pneumonia symptoms, compared to 80 a day before the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The country declared a state of emergency on March 16th, lifting lockdowns roughly two months later on May 11th. Restrictions and quarantine measures were reintroduced in some areas after the new surge in pneumonia cases.

While it’s unclear how many of these new cases of pneumonia can be attributed to a novel virus, we’ll remind you of a similar event from mid-March. Russia, Kazakhstan’s northern neighbor, reported a sharp increase in pneumonia cases in Moscow, prompting some people to question whether the country was being truthful about its own COVID-19 outbreak. Russia has the world’s fourth-largest COVID-19 population right now, with over 713,000 confirmed cases that have been reported. On March 20th, Russia had reported just over 100 COVID-19 cases. At the time, some people suspected that the government was lying about the number of infections in the region, and that may have explained the surge in pneumonia.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.