Syria virus death traced to Kurdish-run northeast region

BEIRUT (AP) — A 53-year-old male resident of Syria’s Kurdish-administered northeast died earlier this month from COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, according to an email from the World Health Organization obtained by The Associated Press on Friday.

The April 2 death in the city of Qamishli had not been reported until now and is the first to be traced back to the northeast, a region that has restricted access to outside assistance and where testing capabilities have so far been unavailable.

It is not clear why the death, although reported to WHO, is not in the Syrian government’s official tally, which has so far reported two deaths, the last on March 30. The man died in a government-run hospital in Qamishli and was tested positive in a Damascus government lab, but Kurdish authorities in the region were not notified.

The case highlights the complications of tracing coronavirus in war-torn Syria, particularly in areas outside of government control. The Kurdish health authorities called the incident “critical and sensitive,” blasting WHO for not reporting the news earlier and blaming the agency for the spread of the virus by withholding information.

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The region is home to nearly 4 million people, including hundreds of thousands of displaced, and hundreds of U.S. troops are stationed there.

It was also not immediately clear why WHO would first confirm the death at this time — two weeks later — to local partners in northeast Syria in an email.

WHO Emergency Response Director Rick Brennan acknowledged a “slip-up” in the reporting, telling AP this development requires urgent action to accelerate response.

“Because a case has been identified in the northeast without any travel history or exposure to other known cases, that means there is already community transmission established in the northeast and more cases can be expected,” Brennan said. “We are encouraging our member states consistently to improve their data management and information sharing. Timely data is needed to drive the response to the pandemic.”

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government.

Syria has recorded 38 infections, but there have been concerns about the real rate of the spread of the disease in the war-ravaged country, where the health system has been decimated by nine years of conflict and where nearly 40% of territories remain outside government control.

Local Kurdish officials and international aid groups in the northeast warned that lack of testing capabilities and dependency on Damascus risks the fast spread of the virus.

All tests conducted in the Kurdish-run northeast have to be flown to Syria’s capital where there is one central lab for testing, a process that can take days.

In the case of this patient, he was first admitted to the hospital in the city of Hassakeh with symptoms on March 22 before he was transferred to a government-run hospital in Qamishli where his tests were taken. The results appeared six days later, by the time he died. The WHO email said the man’s relatives were also tested, one still awaits the results while another six tested negative.

Northeast Syria is an active conflict zone, as Turkey invaded part of the region in October and is currently occupying a sliver along its border. Only last year, the Kurdish-led forces, backed by the United States, defeated remnants of the Islamic State group, but thousands of militants, supporters and family members are still held in detention facilities there.

The northeast’s aid lifeline, a border crossing with Iraq, has been closed since the start of the year — before the pandemic — after the U.N. Security Council failed to renew authorization of cross-border aid following a Russia and China veto.

Now, any U.N. aid for the northeast has to get approval from the Syrian government.

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