New Delhi, Nov 8 : A senior World Health Organization official has cast doubt on Turkmenistan’s claim that it has zero Covid cases, the BBC reported.

“[It] has been spreading worldwide as a pandemic for almost two years now,” said Catherine Smallwood, a senior WHO emergencies officer, adding: “From the scientific point of view, it’s unlikely that the virus is not circulating in Turkmenistan.”

Turkmenistan is one of only a handful of countries, including North Korea, that claim to have no Coronavirus cases. Smallwood’s comments represent the first public challenge by the WHO to Turkmenistan’s claim, as a growing number of Covid cases are being reported in the country informally, the report said.

Analysts say that Turkmenistan’s official statistics on Coronavirus are unreliable. One reason is the “extremely repressive, autocratic nature of the government”, said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

The Turkmenistan government “has a long history of suppressing data and a long history of punishing people who expose the truth”, she said.

Aynabat Yaylymova, the founder of saglyk.org, a website that promotes public health literacy in Turkmen language, said that by remaining silent on case numbers the WHO was “enabling” state propaganda on the pandemic, the report added.

“It’s not scientific. You can’t really deal with the problem if you cannot measure it. And the WHO is supposed to promote science,” Yaylymova said.

Critics have also accused the authorities of manipulating WHO officials and hiding evidence of the pandemic from them during their visit.

The government was “well prepared” for the WHO visit, said Ruslan Myatiev, the editor of the foreign-based Turkmen.news, the report said.

“They accurately selected the doctors that the delegation would meet in the country and they took them to the ‘right’ hospitals and showed them the ‘right’ patients,” he said.