About 80% of the Chinese population has been infected with COVID-19 since restrictions were lifted in early December, Chinese health authorities said this weekend.
The figure, which is equivalent to some 1.2 billion people, has led some experts to calculate that more than a million people could have died, much more than what is included in the official government count, which puts them at about 72,000.
A surge of cases of the omicron variant has ravaged China after the government abruptly ended its ‘COVID zero’ policy last December, lifting restrictions shortly 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 have been infected in this wave.
In the week leading up to the Lunar New Year, the CDC reported 12,658 deaths, adding to the official number of nearly 60,000, which most analysts believe is far below the true number. Until a drastically increased update earlier this month, the official number of deaths in this wave stood below 60.
The increase in the number of cases in December quickly overwhelmed the data collection processes. Coupled with a strict definition of a death attributed to COVID, the official figures soon seemed far below the reality on the ground, and the government was accused of a lack of data transparency.
Beijing rejected the accusation and defended the ‘zero COVID’ policy and its sudden dismantling. Some health officials have acknowledged discrepancies in the data, but have said now is the time to focus on the health response.
Doubts about the data and transparency have caused experts to look for other ways to calculate the impact of the outbreak.
Professor Robert Booy, a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases at the University of Sydney, says the death toll is likely to be between 600,000 and 1 million. Booy and other experts who have spoken with Guardian they state that the virus was likely already spreading much further than previously thought before the restrictions were lifted.
“China may have abandoned its ‘zero COVID’ policy in the first week of December, but it was probably already faltering and failing,” he says. “In 2022, China lost population for the first time since the ‘Great Leap Forward’: a decline of 850,000 people. They’re going to lose at least that number in the coming weeks of COVID, mostly very old people who haven’t been fully vaccinated.”
Dr. Xi Chen, an associate professor of health policy and economics at Yale, points out that no one has good enough data to accurately estimate China’s death toll, but if you make the conservative assumption that it has the highest case fatality rate, low, 0.11%, this suggests that around 1.23 million people have died.
“Of course, this assumes that China has healthcare resources like South Korea and New Zealand,” he says.
Professor Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute for Global Health at the University of Geneva, bases his estimate on excess mortality rates – numbers of deaths from all causes that are above average – of other countries that have passed their first major waves. from COVID.
“If we take Hong Kong, we have excess mortality today… which is around 2,000 deaths per million. If we transfer that rate to China, the figure is slightly below three million deaths, ”he says, adding that the Chinese health system is not as developed as others, including Hong Kong. “If we take Brazil, the number is closer to 4,000 per million, so it’s double,” says Flahault.
James Trauer, head of the epidemiological modeling unit at Monash University, cautions against making estimates so soon, noting that it’s unclear how the CDC was able to arrive at the 80% figure, given problems with data collection. of data.
The CDC says that vacation travel could further spread the virus in the short term, but because so many people have already been infected, “the possibility of a large-scale rebound or second wave epidemic in the whole country is very small.”
Trauer warns against the risk of thinking that a wave of omicron brings with it high levels of herd immunity. “In Australia we had a huge first wave with BA1 last summer, and then the second wave with BA2 followed immediately after in a couple of months. I don’t think they should take it for granted that they don’t have to worry about the numbers going down.”
“Probably the most important thing from the Chinese perspective right now is to better manage the epidemic and increase resources to treat sick people,” he says.