COVID-19 Pandemic Latest Situation in China: 250 million cases in 20 days
With an estimated 250 million new COVID-19 cases just within the first 20 days of December, experts report that China is currently facing a “pandemic tsunami”. Although the official reports demonstrate that the number of COVID-19 cases in China has fallen 47% within a week, these figures are viewed as highly unreliable due to the removal of mass testing with the abandonment of the zero-COVID policy. While the Chinese officials admit that they lack precise information on the current case numbers, experts argue that the virus is running rampant in the country. In fact, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) estimates that around 18% of the whole population has been infected. As many hospitals, morgues, and other medical facilities are already becoming overwhelmed, the World Health Organization (WHO) is urging the Chinese government to be more transparent. Read along to learn more about the latest situation in China and its potential implications for the future of the pandemic.
Why is China experiencing this upsurge in COVID-19 cases?
Experts argue that the current outbreak has largely been driven by the waning immunity of the population due to poor vaccination rates and a lack of previous infections. As the government has long maintained its draconian zero-COVID policy following the rollout of vaccines, the majority of China’s population is now left with waning vaccine-induced immunity and little to no infection-induced immunity. Unlike China, many countries in the West have applied a strategy involving milder measures for a shorter period of time. Experts believe that living with SARS-CoV-2, has allowed these countries to enjoy higher levels of vaccine-induced and infection-induced immunity.
While China has kept the rates of COVID-linked deaths very low with its zero-COVID policy, the government has so far failed to boost the vaccination rates within the country. The vaccination drive in the country began to diminish after February, and reception of booster doses over the summer season remained very low. Consequently, especially the older population, one-third of which remains unvaccinated, is left highly susceptible to severe disease from COVID-19. In fact, Chinese COVID-19 vaccines Sinovac and Sinopharm are widely considered to be less efficient in comparison to the mRNA vaccines administered around the world. Combined with the Chinese New Year holiday season, these factors have led experts to estimate that up to 60 percent of the population in China may get infected between now and March 2023.
Are COVID-linked deaths increasing in China?
Despite the rapid upsurge in new COVID-19 cases, China has reported no new deaths linked to COVID-19. However, given the low rates of vaccination among the elderly and the waning natural immunity of the vast population in China, large numbers of deaths are expected in the upcoming months. In fact, according to an early projection following the removal of zero-COVID-19 measures in the country, it is estimated that SARS-CoV-2 could kill up to a million people in the coming months. Still, experts suggest that the number of deaths could be significantly lowered if the majority of the population receives a fourth vaccine dose of a vaccine other than the inactivated-virus vaccines widely administered in the country. Boosting vaccination rates, offering antiviral drugs to the groups at risk, and reimposing some masking measures and social interaction restrictions could reduce the upsurge of death rates and the burden on hospitals.
Will China continue its zero-COVID policy?
The Chinese government has recently dismantled the majority of the restrictions that it had been imposing in accordance with its zero-COVID policy. Over the last month, the government has ended mass lockdown, removed travel restrictions within and across regions, and started to allow isolation at home. In some districts, such as Chongqing, infected people with mild or no symptoms are even allowed to work in their offices. Testing has also become voluntary, and the National Health Commission of China has stopped reporting the number of infected people with no symptoms.
According to the report of a press conference held on December 27, the Chinese government has announced that it will no longer manage COVID-19 as a Class A infection, but as a Class B infection starting on January 8, 2023. Moreover, the focus of the epidemic response efforts within the country is being shifted from infection prevention to medical treatment. Accordingly, instead of resorting to strategies such as mass testing and isolation, the government is planning to manage COVID-19 through the delivery of medical services and individual patient monitoring. Accordingly, the Chinese government has also approved more than 40 companies for the manufacture of rapid antigen tests in order to increase the public accessibility of rapid antigen testing for at-home use.
What are the implications of the outbreak in China for the future of the pandemic?
There is currently no consensus around the exact implications of the outbreak in China for the rest of the world and for the future of the pandemic. Some experts argue that the outbreak in China could send the world back to square one in its fight against the pandemic. If left unchecked, the spread of COVID-19 among a vast unvaccinated or under-vaccinated population could promote the emergence of new and dangerous variants of SARS-CoV-2, such as the Delta variant, which has caused the spring 2021 outbreaks in the West. On the other hand, some experts claim that the outbreak in China is unlikely to pose additional risks for the rest of the world. These experts suggest that given that the population in many countries has gained hybrid immunity, the Omicron BF.7 variant is unlikely to cause surges in severe disease and death on a global scale. Indeed, the Omicron BF.7 variant appears to lack any growth advantage against other Omicron variants, and hybrid immunity is expected to provide substantial cross-protection against severe disease. Moreover, the less efficient vaccines administered in China are also less expected to select for immunity-evading variants compared to the mRNA or DNA vaccines commonly administered in the West.