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New data suggest Russia may have a lot more COVID-19 deaths than it says it has

U.S. passes 2 million coronavirus cases
U.S. passes 2 million coronavirus cases 02:37

Moscow — Strict coronavirus lockdown measures have been eased this week in Russia's capital as the nationwide tally of confirmed COVID-19 infections surpassed 500,000. New data released by the government are also painting a clearer picture of the number of deaths caused by the disease, and it's not good news.

Russian officials reported 8,779 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, bringing the nationwide total to 502,436. The official number of deaths blamed on the disease hit 6,532, with 174 new fatalities recorded over the past 24 hours.

The mortality rate — the number of deaths relative to infections — is relatively low in Russia compared to other countries with large outbreaks, but new preliminary data released by Moscow healthcare officials Wednesday suggest a much grimmer picture.

A total of 15,713 people died in the capital in May. The city of 12 million people has been Russia's worst-hit region amid the pandemic, and that total figure included 5,799 "excess deaths," or deaths that would not have been expected statistically, given comparisons to previous tallies for the month of May.

RUSSIA-HEALTH-VIRUS
A police officer walks under a sign reading "Life is wonderful" in downtown Moscow, June 9, 2020, the first day after Moscow lifted a range of anti-coronavirus measures including a strict lockdown set up to curb the spread of the COVID-19. DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty

Officials said 92% of those excess deaths — 5,260 fatalities — were related to COVID-19. In 2,757 of those cases the virus was listed as the main cause of death, the city's health department said. The numbers are both considerably higher than the 1,895 fatalities officially counted last month in Moscow by the national coronavirus response center, which publishes daily statistics on the spread of the disease.

The national health ministry explained the difference by noting a modified approach in their calculation methods, which now counts cases where COVID was not deemed to be the primary cause of death.

"We can additionally outline those cases where COVID had a significant impact on the course of the main illness or its deadly complications," the statement said.

The new data suggest the nationwide death toll from the coronavirus could, also, be much higher than the official tally, but national excess mortality data have not yet been published.

National data on deaths and births for April had been expected at the end of May, but authorities have delayed its release, saying it was incomplete because lockdown measures stymied data gathering efforts.

A series of media reports have questioned Russia's official data on coronavirus deaths, but officials continue to defend the figures as accurate, citing available autopsy reports.

Asked about it on Wednesday, World Health Organization (WHO) Health Emergencies chief Michael Ryan said the low coronavirus death toll in Russia was "difficult to understand" given the number of confirmed cases.

On Thursday, the Kremlin again denied there was anything strange about the government figures. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia's consumer health watchdog would be happy to explain its data to the WHO, according to Russian news agencies.

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This week Moscow ended its travel pass system for public and private transport and allowed many non-essential businesses to reopen. 

The Kremlin has encouraged Russia's regional governments to ease lockdown restrictions ahead of the already-postponed Victory Day parade, and an upcoming national vote on constitutional amendments initiated by President Vladimir Putin, one of which would allow him to continue running the country beyond his current term.

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