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Russia slams The New York Times and Financial Times over coronavirus death toll reports

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Moscow – Russia has criticized the Financial Times and The New York Times over their recent stories suggesting the country's death rate from COVID-19 could be much higher than officially reported, defending its methodology behind the official mortality numbers. 

The publications pointed at open data showing increased mortality in Moscow and St. Petersburg last month compared to previous Aprils.

The Russian Foreign Ministry attacked the newspapers on Thursday, accusing them of "disinformation," and demanding retractions. Russian lawmaker Vasily Piskaryov also demanded the publications be stripped of their press accreditation.

Virus Outbreak Russia Media
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova on January 17, 2020 in Moscow, Russia. Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Vice president for communications for The New York Times, Danielle Rhoades Ha, said in a statement obtained by CBS News that the newspaper's report was accurate because it was based on "publicly available government records and interviews with experts from government-run institutions."  

Russia has the second highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the world after the United States, with more than 262,000 confirmed cases reported as of Friday. The country's official death toll, however, remains lower compared to other hard-hit countries: 2,418 COVID-19 deaths have been reported by Russian officials. 

According to government data, Moscow registered over 1,700 more deaths overall last month compared to its April average over the past five years. The New York Times pointed out that that total is much higher than Russia's official coronavirus death count of 642 in Moscow for April. 

The Financial Times reported a similar spike in total deaths reported in St. Petersburg in April, suggesting that the country could have 70% more coronavirus deaths than officially stated. 

Neither publications have met the foreign ministry's demand for a retraction.

Moscow's Health Department reacted to the press reports on Wednesday with a statement saying that more than 60% of deaths among the city's coronavirus patients are not being included in the official virus death toll because their deaths resulted from underlying causes. Officials said autopsies are being conducted in all suspected coronavirus deaths, and defended their methodology as "exceptionally precise."

Russian officials have also claimed that the large scope of testing contributed to low mortality, allowing the detection of infections at early stages. According to the Russian healthcare watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor, 6.4 million COVID-19 tests have been done as of Friday. 

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