China is likely to see an explosion of COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks, experts say, as the country lifts its longstanding and highly unpopular zero COVID policy.
China is extremely vulnerable right now because its population – especially the elderly, who are most likely to suffer from serious disease – is under-immunized, has no natural immunity against infection and a supply limited in treatments.
Experts predict hundreds of millions of infections and up to 1.5-2 million deaths.
“I think China is going to explode in the next six to 12 weeks,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said in a webinar Thursday. “Instead of falling off a 5ft cliff, we’re going to watch them fall off a 1,000ft cliff.”
A raging outbreak in China could be bad news for controlling the virus in the United States, he and other experts said, as travelers will arrive sick and mutation risks increase each time a virus infects many. people.
RECENT NEWS:China announces radical easing of “zero COVID” measures
China lifts zero-COVID policy. How will the United States be affected?
Whenever a virus rages out of control, especially in a population as large as China’s, there’s a good chance that new variants will develop, said virus expert Dr Jeremy Luban at the ‘UMass Chan Medical School.
The variants currently circulating in China appear to be the ones that have been most widespread here, including the omicron BA.5 and BQ.1 sub-variants.
“There’s no particular reason to be concerned except that many infections are bad for the evolution of new things that we can’t predict,” Luban said on a media call on Wednesday. from the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness. “The more the infection rate can be controlled in China, the better.”
The United States is carefully monitoring infections and variants among travelers, using sewage and other means, Dr. Ashish Jha, White House coronavirus response coordinator, told a press briefing. press Thursday.
“If new variants emerge, I’m confident we can address them,” he said.
What is likely to happen in China?
Model predicts China will see 100 million symptomatic cases, 5 million hospital admissions and up to 1.6 million deaths from COVID-19 alone, not counting strain on the system healthcare that will lead to even more tragedies, said Jennifer Bouey, a RAND epidemiologist.
She said there are not enough intensive care units in the country to handle this level of demand and she expects the healthcare system to be overwhelmed. Blood banks are already experiencing a shortage of donations, she said.
If mainland China were to experience the same death rate as Hong Kong during an outbreak in February and March, more than 2 million Chinese would be expected to die in the coming months, said Harvard TH Chan School epidemiologist William Hanage. of Public Health, on call with Luban.
Why is China so vulnerable to COVID-19 right now?
- Natural immunity: Due to the zero COVID policy, few Chinese have been infected, so they lack natural immune protection, Bouey said.
- Vaccine protection has decreased: About 90% of China’s population received a first round of vaccines, but far fewer received booster shots and most of those shots were more than six months old, she said.
- Lack of confidence: Early in the pandemic, there were scandals where patients were given fake or adulterated COVID-19 vaccines, reducing public confidence in them, said Timothy Heath, senior international defense fellow at RAND.
- Misconceptions about vaccines: The government also prioritized vaccinating young and healthy people, leading the public to believe that the vaccine could be dangerous for the elderly.
“A very difficult path to travel” for China
Following widespread public protests, the Chinese government lifted its zero COVID restrictions on December 1.
Bouey said she had seen little evidence that the Chinese government was prepared to suddenly lift its restrictions. A recall campaign this summer would have made all the difference, accompanied by a substantial pre-purchase of antiviral treatments.
“We see the government starting in the last few days to talk about recalls and antivirals,” she said.
Heath said reversing course now “will further fuel mistrust and skepticism among the Chinese people who don’t know how much the government is really telling the truth.”
He and Bouey said they don’t believe the government is accurately reporting COVID-19 cases at this time. Official reports say infections are falling, while social media, empty streets and shops, drug shortages and long queues at hospitals tell a different story.
Still, Hanage predicts that China will have fewer deaths per capita than the United States because it delayed its outbreak until vaccines arrived. “China has a very, very difficult road ahead of it in the coming months, don’t get me wrong, but without vaccination it would be much, much worse.”
Contact Karen Weintraub at email@example.com.
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