Turkey excludes asymptomatic COVID-19 cases from data, drawing ire of doctors

(Updates with Kızıl's, TTB's statements)

Not all positive COVID-19 cases are being recorded in Turkey’s official statistics, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said on Wednesday, drawing criticism from the country’s medical association.

"Not every positive case is sick, we only give the number of patients", he said at a weekly press conference, appearing to acknowledge a crucial distinction in the way data was collected.

In July, the Health Ministry changed the wording of its statistics to refer to new “patients” rather than cases, Reuters reported.

The official rate of COVID-19 in Turkey has remained relatively low by international standards. 

But Koca’s admission comes as the health ministry faces growing scrutiny over its response to the pandemic, which critics say does not acknowledge the full extent of the crisis.  

Sharing a video of Koca’s statement on Twitter, the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) slammed the health minister’s comments.

"Minister of Health Fahrettin Koca explained that cases that do not show symptoms but test positive are not included in the daily results. We have been saying this for 6 months. You have not carried out the process transparently. You have hidden the facts. You have not prevented the spread of the epidemic,” the TTB said.

Meanwhile, Germany-based neuroscientist Çağhan Kızıl, who is not affiliated with the TBB, said the health minister's remarks contradicted with the article he wrote for The Lancet, one of the world's oldest and best-known general weekly medical journal.

"In your article in The Lancet, you said that we are making case reports according to general principles, but you refuted it yesterday. Are you considering correcting or revoking the article?" Kızıl said.

"Case and death definitions from WHO guidelines have been strictly used. A physician can request a PCR test for any patient, anytime, and without any limitation. And, in line with WHO definitions and recommendations, patients who test positive for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) have been reported as positive cases," Koca said in his article for The Lancet which was published on Sept. 3.

The TTB has already accused the Health Ministry of failing to follow the World Health Organisation (WHO) regulations in reporting deaths from COVID-19. The medical group said the ministry was coding a number of deaths in which the patient has not tested positive for COVID-19, despite clinical findings which support the diagnosis, as viral pneumonia or death by natural causes.

The official number of COVID-19 cases in Turkey stood at 318,663 on Wednesday, with 8,195 deaths.