Eight in 10 people in China have contracted Covid since early December, officials say

About 80% of China’s population has been infected with Covid-19 since restrictions were lifted in early December, Chinese health authorities said.

The figure, which would equate to about 1.2 billion people but cannot be confirmed from the outside, led some pandemic experts to estimate that more than 1 million people may have died – far more than the government’s official figure of about 72,000.

A wave of omicron cases swept China after the government abruptly ended its zero-Covid policy last December and lifted restrictions just before the start of the Lunar New Year and Spring Festival. On Saturday, China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said about 80% of the country’s 1.41 billion people had been infected in this wave.

In the week leading up to the lunar new year, the CDC reported 12,658 deaths, raising the official pandemic count of nearly 60,000, which most observers believe is well below the actual number. Until a dramatically increased update earlier this month, the official number of this wave was reported with under 60 deaths.

The increasing number of cases in December quickly overwhelmed the data collection processes. Coupled with a narrow definition of a Covid-attributable death, official figures soon appeared far below reality on the ground, and the government was accused of a lack of data transparency by the WHO.

Beijing dismissed the accusation and defended the zero-Covid policy and its sudden dismantling. Some health officials have acknowledged the data discrepancies but said now is the time to focus on the health response.

The data and transparency concerns have prompted experts to look for other ways to gauge the impact of the outbreak.

Prof Robert Booy, an infectious diseases pediatrician at the University of Sydney, said the death toll was likely to be between 600,000 and 1 million. Booy and other experts who spoke to the Guardian said the virus was likely to have spread far more widely than was thought even before restrictions were lifted.

“China may have dropped their zero-Covid policy in the first week of December, but they’ve probably already floundered and failed,” he said. “In 2022, China lost population for the first time since the Great Leap Forward — a drop of 850,000 people. They will lose at least that number in the coming weeks of Covid, mostly very old people who have not been fully vaccinated.”

dr Xi Chen, associate professor of health policy and economics at Yale, said nobody has good enough data to accurately estimate China’s death toll, but conservative assumptions that it has the lowest death rate of 0.11% suggest that there were about 1.23 million people had died.

“Of course, that assumes China has resources in healthcare, like South Korea and New Zealand do,” he added.

Prof Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute for Global Health at the University of Geneva, based his estimate on the excess mortality rates – the number of deaths from all causes that are above average – of other countries that have weathered their first major Covid waves to have .

“If you take Hong Kong, nowadays you have an excess mortality … which is about 2,000 deaths per million. If you convert that rate to China, it comes out to a little less than 3 million deaths,” he said, adding the caveat that China’s healthcare system is not as consistently developed as systems in other places, including Hong Kong.

“If you take Brazil, the number is almost 4,000 per million, so double that,” Flahault said.

James Tragedy, the head of the Department of Epidemiological Modeling at Monash University, warned against making estimates so early in the wave, noting that it’s not clear how China’s CDC is tackling the 80% figure given the problems with data collection. can determine.

The CDC notice had said vacation travel could spread the virus further in the short term, but because so many were already infected, “the possibility of a large-scale resurgence of the epidemic, or a second wave of epidemics across the country, is very remote.”

Sorrow cautioned against believing that an Omicron wave will bring high levels of herd immunity. “In Australia we had a huge first wave of BA1 last summer and then the second wave of BA2 followed within a few months. I don’t think they should assume that because the numbers are going down, they don’t have to worry,” he said.

“Probably the most important thing from a Chinese perspective right now is to better manage the epidemic and increase resources to treat the sick people.”