Why is the COVID wave worrying in China

Why is the COVID wave worrying in China?

Unreliable data, patchy estimates and doubts about the emergence of new variants: China is currently facing the strongest COVID wave in the world after lifting its restrictions, causing concern in many countries.

• Also read: Beijing denounces COVID testing for travelers from China, possible ‘countermeasures’

Unreliable data

Beijing has recognized this: since large-scale screening of the population using PCR tests was stopped last month, it has become “impossible” to quantify the infections on its territory.

The National Health Commission (NHC), which has the value of a ministry, has stopped publishing daily case and death counts. Now the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is doing this, but starting next week it will only do it once a month.

Authorities recently changed the criteria for assigning a COVID death. Just 15 such deaths have been reported in the country of 1.4 billion since restrictions were lifted on December 7.

Casting doubt on the ability of official Chinese figures to reflect reality as hospitals and crematoria are overwhelmed by an influx of patients and victims of COVID.

Authorities admitted last week that they were collecting “much less” data compared to the period over which large-scale testing was conducted.

To fill in the gaps in the statistics, authorities are relying on online surveys, hospital visits, requests for fever medication and emergency calls, according to disease control official Yin Wenwu.

Many countries, including the United States, Australia and Canada, cite the lack of transparency of Chinese data to justify their decision to impose PCR tests on travelers from China.

package estimates

Some local authorities have started releasing figures: this is the case of Zhejiang (east) province, which borders Shanghai, which last week estimated that a million new cases were emerging every day.

Qingdao city (east) has reported 500,000 new daily infections, Dongguan city (south) says 300,000.

In the island province of Hainan (south), authorities on Friday estimated the infection rate of residents to be over 50%, while the cities of Quzhou and Zhoushan (east) calculated that at least 30% of their population had contracted COVID.

One of the country’s top epidemiologists, Wu Zunyou, said Thursday the peak had been passed in the cities of Beijing, Chengdu (southwest) and Tianjin (north).

In Shanghai, “a potential 70% of the population, or 20 to 30 times more, has been affected” than the previous outbreak in spring 2022, Chen Erzhen, vice president of Ruijin Hospital, told a blog linked to People’s Daily .

It is difficult to put all these pieces of data together to get a full picture of the national situation. Figures leaked from a meeting of health officials last month point to 250 million infections in the first 20 days of December.

The independent projections are pessimistic. Researchers from the University of Hong Kong predict that nearly a million Chinese could die from the virus this winter.

The British medical analysis company Airfinity, which estimates the number of daily deaths in China at 11,000 and infections at 1.8 million per day, expects 1.7 million deaths by the end of April.

New variants?

Concerned about possible new variants, many countries are imposing tests on travelers coming from China.

However, no new strains of COVID-19 have been detected.

A new national database from the collection of hospital specimens is in the pipeline, according to Xu Wenbo, a CDC official.

The sublines of the Omicron BA.5.2 and BF.7 variants remain dominant in Beijing, he said, in response to concerns that the more dangerous Delta variant is still in circulation. Omicron is in Shanghai.

In many Western countries, the XBB and BQ subvariants have taken over, which are more transmissible but not yet dominant in China.

Last month, China submitted 384 samples of Omicron to the global Gisaid database, according to its website. But the total number of samples from Beijing since the epidemic began (1,308) remains much lower than that from other countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Cambodia or Senegal.

The samples recently brought back from Beijing “are very similar to the variants known and circulating around the world between July and December,” according to Gisaid.

University of Hong Kong virologist Jin Don-yan said on a recent podcast that the likelihood of a deadlier variant emerging in China is “very low”.