China has outlined the way it counts Covid-19 deaths amid scepticism about the real impact of the disease.
It says the figure includes only those who die from respiratory illnesses, such as pneumonia.
Officially, there were only five Covid deaths on Tuesday, two on Monday – and none in the previous two weeks.
The counting method goes against World Health Organization (WHO) guidance – resulting in a figure that is way below the death toll in many other countries.
The WHO says countries use different processes to test and report Covid-19 deaths making comparisons between nations difficult.
It is why many countries record Covid-19 deaths as excess mortality – how many more people died than would normally be expected based on death figures before the pandemic hit.
These calculations also take into account deaths which were not directly because of Covid but were caused by its knock-on effects – including people being unable to access hospitals for the care they require.
By contrast, China has strict criteria for confirming Covid-19 cases, which include evidence in patients of lung damage caused by the virus. This must be confirmed in a scan.
But, the country is currently experiencing a surge in cases since the lifting of its most severe restrictions earlier this month.
Official figures show a relatively low number of new daily cases and deaths. This has led to fears the numbers are an underestimate due to a recent reduction in Covid testing.
In a bid to address the concerns the State Council held a news conference on Tuesday.
Infectious disease expert Prof Wang Gui-qiang clarified that only pneumonia and respiratory failure caused by the coronavirus were counted as Covid deaths.
Deaths caused by underlying diseases are not included in the official count, state-owned China News Service reported.
Strict lockdowns are said to account for China’s official death toll staying so low since the start of the pandemic – the official figure is just over 5,200.
This is equal to only three Covid deaths in every million in China, compared with 3,000 per million in the US and 2,400 per million in the UK.
China has faced challenges with vaccines being used and particularly getting them to the most vulnerable people.
Overall, China says more than 90% of its population has been fully vaccinated. However, less than half of people aged 80 and over have received three doses of vaccine. Elderly people are more likely to suffer severe Covid symptoms.
China has developed and produced its own vaccines, which have been shown to be less effective at protecting people against serious Covid illness and death than the mRNA vaccines used in much of the rest of the world.
Prof Wang’s comments come as hospitals in the capital Beijing and in other cities struggle to cope with the latest Covid surge.
The latest wave has also hit postal and catering services hard.
Meanwhile, China’s largest city, Shanghai, has ordered most of its schools to take classes online as cases soar.