China’s decision to stick with draconian restrictions for so long is to blame for the ‘thermonuclear’ Covid wave that could kill up to one million people, experts warned today.
Startling projections since Beijing U-turned on its tough zero Covid stance suggest there could be up to one million deaths in the coming months because of low immunity across the country’s 1.4 billion population.
Immunologists predict up to 60 per cent of the country will get infected between now and March, as the virus is allowed to rip.
One leading expert predicted even higher levels of deaths, saying they will likely be in the ‘millions — plural’, adding: ‘This is just the start.’
Shocking footage shared online over the past few day shows sick patients on respirators packing out hospital wards, with many forced to lie on the floor because all the beds are full.
One clip shows an exhausted doctor collapsing and crematoriums say they have run out of space to keep bodies.
Experts said the capitulation has been caused by President Xi Jinping’s government sticking with its zero Covid policy for so long after rolling out vaccines.
The hermit strategy left China’s population with little to no natural immunity.
Official figures show Covid cases in China fell 47 per cent in a week to an average of 1,801 a day on December 20. Infections appear to have peaked on November 29, when they totalled more than 71,000.
But the figures are highly unreliable because mass testing in China was abandoned as part of the Government’s U-turn. Even the Chinese authorities admit they do not know what the real numbers are — but experts believe the virus is running rampant.
Wang Guangfa, a doctor at Peking University First Hospital, described the surge as a ‘pandemic tsunami’.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus yesterday said: ‘WHO is very concerned over the evolving situation in China, with increasing reports of severe disease.’
Dr Eric Feigl-Ding, an immunologist at the New England Complex Systems Institute, tweeted: ‘THERMONUCLEAR BAD — Hospitals completely overwhelmed in China ever since restrictions dropped.
Epidemiologist estimate >60% of [China] & 10% of Earth’s population likely infected over next 90 days. Deaths likely in the millions—plural.
Despite the suspected increase, China — which has repeatedly been accused of fiddling its numbers — reported no new Covid deaths yesterday and subtracted one death from its overall toll, lowering it to 5,241.
The daily tally was issued by the National Health Commission, which did not explain the decrease.
Wang Guiqiang, the head of infectious disease at the same hospital in Peking, confirmed this week that deaths in patients with pre-existing illnesses are not officially counted as Covid deaths. In effect, Wang’s comments on Tuesday clarified publicly what the country has been doing throughout the pandemic.
Even with underreporting, the latest projection, published in the medical journal Nature, suggest up to a million could die in the coming months.
Professor David Livermore, a microbiologist at the University of East Anglia, said, ‘China is in for a few grim weeks as zero Covid is unravelled.’ ‘Those who were vaccinated received killed whole virus vaccines, not western mRNA products. Hong Kong’s experience, back in the spring, was that these killed-virus preparations were less effective in reducing mortality.’
Chinese Covid vaccines — Sinovac and Sinopharm — are widely considered to be less effective than the mRNA vaccines used in most other nations.
Since the policy change, the virus has been allowed to rip through a population that had largely not been exposed to the virus. Experts said dropping zero Covid wasn’t the problem — it was dropping it so late after vaccinating the population.
Professor Paul Hunter, a public health expert at UEA, said any weak immunity afforded by the jabs had long run off by the time measures were abandoned. And because people were not topped up with immunity afforded by natural infection, they are particularly vulnerable now.
The surge in cases has led some leading to experts to call China the ‘ideal’ breeding ground for risky variants because of how it has been sheltered from previous waves and has a low vaccine uptake. High infection rates are a ‘cauldron of virus evolution’ which could result in a more lethal and immune-evading variant, they said. There is little surveillance to check for strains in the country, meaning a new one could appear at any time.
But not all pandemic-watchers are as concerned. The BF.7 Omicron sub-strain thought to be behind the current outbreak has not been shown to have an advantage on variants in the West.
Professor Hunter said: ‘I don’t think the situation in China will pose a substantial additional risk to many other countries. After all, most of the rest of the world has hybrid immunity. It is said that it is the BF.7 variant of Omicron that is driving the wave in China but at a global scale this variant does not appear to have any growth advantage against other variants.
Professor Livermore said the less effective jabs used in China are also unlikely to select for vaccine immunity-evading variants. He said: ‘I don’t think this surge has major implications for the rest of the world.’ ‘Whilst the Chinese vaccines are not particularly effective they are, at least, targeted against the whole virus, inducing antibodies to multiple viral proteins. This should make it harder for the virus to mutate away from them.’
‘These vaccines solely target the virus’s Spike protein, which is highly variable — and it’s this variation that provides the route to vaccine escape.’
While the surge may not pose much of a threat to the rest of the world in terms of new strains, it is an immediate danger in China itself.
A citizen in Shanghai told of deserted streets, closed supermarkets and empty offices as the virus continues to rampage.
‘I think the official numbers are fake, how can a few hundred cases be possible across China?,’ said a 43-year-old man who preferred not to be named. ‘People don’t believe the government numbers. They are not stupid. They will chat among themselves, but never discuss it on social media.’ ‘Even if they do, the comments will be deleted immediately.’ He and his partner recently contracted Covid and ‘had a fever of 39 degrees, cough, body-ache and a sore throat and stayed in bed for a few days’. ‘Partly we feel happy because of the relaxation of Covid measures, but at the same time we are ill and we need to find ways to get Panadol, electrolytes replenishment drinks and rapid test kits,’ he said. A lot more people are ill, he believes. ‘Beijing is worse. The government probably wants all of us to get infected.’ He said his ‘conspiracy theory’ was: ‘If people get sick, they won’t be on the streets to protest.’
Unlike in the West, vaccines have not been widely pushed: ‘The Government hasn’t made vaccines compulsory, neither promoted it. Now they’re like “come on, it [Covid] is just like flu, get it, let it go!” You see this 180-degree change?’
But he did tentatively welcome the Chinese government’s U-turn in dropping its ‘dynamic zero’ Covid policy and relaxing restrictions.
He believes that the government knows how widespread the virus is and thinks the government was forced to relax the measures because it was getting out of control.
He said the government still has the same narrative that Covid is imported. He said: ‘They will use terms like “imported” in announcements, but that’s not the focus anymore. No one cares if it’s imported.’
He doesn’t think there’ll be another lockdown because so many people are infected now.