Sharp increase in Moscow pneumonia cases fuels fears over coronavirus statistics

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A reported sharp increase in pneumonia cases in the Russian capital and contradictory information around the issue is fuelling fears about the accuracy of official coronavirus data which remains much lower than many European countries.

A man demonstrates a protective mask attached to a plate while looking out of a window in a hospital for patients infected with coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on the outskirts of Moscow, Russia March 19, 2020. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

Russia, which has a population of 144 million, has reported just 199 coronavirus cases and some doctors have questioned how far the official data reflects reality, given what they say is the patchy nature and quality of testing.

A sharp spike in pneumonia cases in Moscow, Russia’s biggest transport hub and a city with a population of around 13 million, has further raised doubts.

“I have a feeling they (the authorities) are lying to us,” said Anastasia Vasilyeva, head of Russia’s Doctor’s Alliance trade union.

The government says its statistics are accurate however, and President Vladimir Putin has complained that Russia is being targeted by fake news to sow panic.

The number of cases of pneumonia, which can be caused by coronavirus, increased by 37 percent in Moscow year-on-year in January, according to Rosstat, Russia’s statistics agency.

The data showed that the Russian capital, which has 98 confirmed cases of coronavirus, recorded 6,921 pneumonia cases in January, up from 5,058 the previous year. Nationwide pneumonia cases also spiked by over 3 percent year-on-year.

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Yet Moscow’s own health department issued a statement on March 13 saying pneumonia cases in January and February were actually 8% and 7% lower than last year.

It did not respond when asked why its data was so different.

Asked about the discrepancy, Rosstat said it did not know where Moscow’s health department was sourcing its numbers or how it could have produced such a result.

“The idea that this pneumonia is coronavirus comes to mind,” said Vasilyeva. “There seem to be no other reasons for the rise,” she said.

Other doctors disagree.

“There is an explanation for this,” said Professor Vladimir Nikoforov, a prominent specialist in infectious diseases.

“The number of people seeking medical attention has risen due to anxiety among the population,” he said, saying people were seeking medical advice earlier than usual because they were worried about coronavirus. There were therefore more pneumonia diagnoses, he said.

Some Russians who recall the Soviet-era cover-up of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident are less sure.

“I don’t believe the coronavirus numbers,” said Ekaterina, a Moscow accountant. “I remember what they told us about Chernobyl at the time. It’s only now that we’re finding out what really happened.”

On Thursday, Moscow authorities reported Russia’s first coronavirus-related death, a 79-year old woman, but later said she’d died of a blood clot. The government did not include her death in its daily coronavirus bulletin.

Additional reporting by Polina Nikolskaya, Gleb Stolyarov and Anton Zverev; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Alexandra Hudson