Deadly 'unknown pneumonia' outbreak in Kazakhstan is probably undiagnosed COVID-19

Officials in Astana, Kazakhstan carry out disinfection measures due to COVID-19 on March 30.
Officials in Astana, Kazakhstan carry out disinfection measures due to COVID-19 on March 30. (Image credit: Kazakh Defense Ministry / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A Chinese embassy has issued a warning about a deadly "unknown pneumonia" circulating in Kazakhstan, but authorities outside of China say these cases are still likely COVID-19.

On Thursday (July 9), officials with the embassy in Kazakhstan issued an alert to residents that the unidentified pneumonia had killed more than 1,700 people in Kazakhstan, including Chinese citizens, according to CNN. "The death rate of this disease is much higher than the novel coronavirus," the alert said, according to Newsweek.

However, authorities in Kazakhstan denied such an outbreak, saying that "this information does not correspond to reality," CNN reported. A statement from Kazakhstan's health ministry said that there were "viral pneumonias of unspecified etiology" in the country. However, the statement said that the classification of "unspecified" was used for cases of COVID-19 that had been diagnosed based on symptoms but not confirmed with laboratory testing.

In a press briefing for the World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday (July 10), Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said that the news of this outbreak "is certainly on our radar," and that the organization is working with authorities in Kazakhstan to investigate it. 

These cases are likely COVID-19, given that there has been a big surge in COVID-19 in the country recently, with more than 10,000 such cases diagnosed there in the last week, Ryan said. WHO is now looking at the quality of testing conducted and if some of these unspecified pneumonia cases are due to false negative test results for COVID-19, he said.

Ryan noted that clusters of atypical pneumonia can occur "anywhere in the world at any time," and can be due to a number of causes, including Legionnaires' disease (severe pneumonia caused by bacteria in the Legionella genus) or influenza.

"The upward trajectory of COVID-19 cases in the country would suggest that many of these cases are in fact undiagnosed cases of COVID-19," Ryan said. But, he added "we keep an open mind."

Originally published on Live Science.  

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.