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The World Health Organization has secured permission to conduct independent sampling in officially coronavirus-free Turkmenistan, after expressing “serious concern” over rising pneumonia cases there, a WHO official said.

A Saturday state television report showing a teleconference involving Turkmenistan’s leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made no mention of WHO concern over pneumonia cases or Berdymukhamedov’s pledge over sampling.

But Hans Kluge, the WHO’s Europe director, said the United Nations health body had “expressed serious concern about (a rise) in #COVID19 negative pneumonia” in Turkmenistan during the Friday call with Berdymukhamedov that he also participated in.

The WHO “urged for a @WHO team to sample independently #COVID19 tests in-country & take to @WHO reference labs. President agreed,” Kluge tweeted on Friday, without offering further details.

A WHO mission visited the secretive gas-rich Central Asian state last month and advised the country to adopt measures including contact tracing “as if Covid-19 were already circulating” but stopped short of saying that it thought the government was covering up coronavirus cases.

Turkmenistan has since implemented a nationwide lockdown and warned citizens to wear masks, citing “dust” and “pathogens” carried by wind, rather than the virus.

State television said Berdymukhamedov had raised the issue of a “pneumonia of unknown etymology, which is rapidly spreading in our (Central Asian) region” in the call with the WHO, without saying if the pneumonia had reached Turkmenistan.

Berdymukhamedov even speculated that pneumonia cases in the region could be linked to a “new coronavirus.”

“I am confident in the need to consolidate the efforts of states in the very near future to correctly diagnose this disease under the patronage of the World Health Organization,” Berdymukhamedov was reported as saying.

Health is an important feature of state propaganda in ex-Soviet Turkmenistan, which has also claimed in the past to have zero cases of HIV/AIDS.