There are good and bad news in China’s scramble to emerge from its catastrophic 3-year long zero-covid hangover, into a country reborn, metaphorically speaking, and with herd immunity.
First, the bad news: Bloomberg reports that according to Airfinity Ltd., a London-based research firm that focuses on predictive health analytics, China could see as many as 25,000 deaths a day from Covid-19 later in January, casting a shadow over the start of the first Lunar New Year festivities without pandemic restrictions.
Mortalities from the contagious respiratory illness will probably peak around Jan. 23, the second day of the annual holiday in the country of 1.4 billion, Airfinity estimated, adding that daily infections will peak 10 days before at around 3.7 million cases. These numbers are roughly in line with our own calculations.
“Using the trends in regional data our team of epidemiologists has forecast the first peak to be in regions where cases are currently rising and a second peak driven by later surges in other Chinese provinces,” Airfinity said in a statement late on Thursday.
Daily infections are currently at around 1.8 million, with mortalities at 9,000, the researcher said. That’s up from the 5,000-plus daily estimate by Airfinity earlier this month, and contrasts sharply with just around a dozen Covid deaths the Chinese government has reported in total since the dismantling of Covid restrictions in early December. By the end of April 2023, China may see 1.7 million deaths from this wave of infections, Airfinity said.
Airfinity’s estimates are based on data from China’s regional provinces, which had reported numbers far higher than official national figures, combined with trends seen in Hong Kong, Japan and other countries when they lifted strict restrictions, the researcher said. The extent of the latest outbreak has been difficult to gauge after officials abandoned publishing an accurate case count and narrowed their definition of a virus death.
Amid expectations that China would maintain its strict anti-covid policy well into 2023, Beijing suddenly ended its Covid Zero framework in mid/late December, abandoning the strict testing and lockdown measures embraced by the world’s second-largest economy since the start of the pandemic almost three years ago. The resulting outbreaks have been difficult to gauge without an accurate count, forcing observers to rely on outside estimates and anecdotal evidence.
And while the chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Wu Zunyou, said in a briefing Thursday that Covid outbreaks have peaked in Beijing, Tianjin and Chengdu, he added that the situation in Shanghai, Chongqing, Anhui, Hubei and Hunan remains serious. More ominously, Italy’s Milan reported that up to 50% of passengers on a recent flight from China have covid. Wu added that the disease will probably spread during Lunar New Year, with many expected to travel around the holiday, he added. With the lifting of travel and other restrictions for the first time since the start of the pandemic, a huge rebound in travel is anticipated during the holiday week in January.
Meanwhile, with scenes of overwhelmed hospitals playing out across the country, officials on Thursday said some regions are now grappling with a surge in severe Covid patients. The occupancy rate of intensive care unit beds for the whole country hasn’t crossed the red line of 80%, but some parts of the nation are bracing for a peak in severe cases, said Jiao Yahui, an official overseeing hospitals at the National Health Commission.
The jump in cases has fueled concern across the globe about the emergence of new Covid variants that could be more contagious, lethal, or both. That has prompted numerous countries to adopt mandatory testing and entry restrictions for travelers from China, which also announced this week that it would reopen its borders on Jan. 8. Liang Wannian, China’s senior official overseeing epidemic response, said the country is strengthening the monitoring of Covid variant and will report to the World Health Organization if it discovers any.
Now the good news: while China’s rushed reopening will likely lead to another wave of global covid infections, it will likely be the mostly innocuous Omicron variant; the risk is that a new, more dangerous/virulent variant emerges. However, so far no novel Covid-19 variants have emerged in China, according to a global consortium that’s tracking coronavirus mutations, easing concerns that the country’s record wave of infections would give rise to new strains that could circulate around the world.
National, provincial and private health-care authorities in the country have provided nearly 1,000 genetic sequences from infected patients to GISAID in the past five days, said CEO Peter Bogner. So far, all the samples continue to be omicron, though subvariants that have hit other parts of the world – including XBB.1 and BQ.1.1 – have emerged, he said.
“The variants continue to circulate without any significant changes that raise any specter of concern,” Bogner said. “You do not have any kind of data that suggest anything but business as usual.”
China is also ramping up efforts to track mutations, with the recent upload of sequencing data comparing with just 25 samples submitted in the previous month, he said. The data are important for helping with future needs as statistics on cases and deaths provide backward-looking information, he said.
“There is huge self-interest,” he said. “That’s the one you can act on. It’s actionable information. You can adjust your diagnostic kits, your vaccines. There’s not actionable information in how many people died. It’s the rear-view mirror. Genomic information provides actionable insights.”