Studies have found that up to one million people in China could die from COVID-19 over the next few months.
These figures are some of the first and highest projections since the government lifted many of its strict ‘zero-COVID-19’ measures.
“There’s no doubt that China is in for a bad couple of months,” says James Wood, an infectious-disease modeller at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
Reports emerging from the capital city say that Police and security guards have been stationed outside a Beijing crematorium reportedly to handle Covid fatalities, as questions over China’s virus death toll mount. Guards pushed journalists to the back of the Beijing Dongjiao Funeral Parlor’s parking lot on Monday, as a line of about a dozen black minivans entered the site on Beijing’s eastern outskirts, used to prepare and process bodies for cremation.
However, two other studies found that the number of deaths could be reduced by giving most of the population a fourth vaccine dose, combined with a high level of adherence to masking and reimposition of temporary restrictions on social interactions when death rates surge. These measures could also ease the burden on hospitals.
“It is never too late to flatten the curve,” says Xi Chen, an economist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who studies China’s public-health system.
A study suggests that if 85% of the population gets a fourth dose of a vaccine other than the inactivated-virus vaccines most people in the country have received, it could potentially slow the rise in infections and reduce the number of severe infections and deaths. Pushing fourth vaccine doses, combined with giving antiviral drugs to people aged 60 and older and to other individuals at high-risk of developing severe disease, could reduce deaths by up to 35%.
Currently, China’s booster rate for those over 80 is below average at 40%.
“It is really critical for China to achieve the highest vaccination coverage possible in the period immediately before the major epidemic takes off,” says James Trauer, an infectious-disease modeller at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He also notes that there is still a lot of uncertainty around the projections about the epidemic’s toll and the impact of measures to slow the spread.
According to some health experts, Covid-19 cases are doubling in China in “hours” and not in days. Adding that the current COVID surge in China is expected to last until mid-January experts have also said that the Lunar New Year holiday may trigger a second wave through mid-February.
For nearly three years, the Chinese government has used strict lockdowns, centralised quarantines, mass testing and rigorous contact tracing to curb the spread of the virus. However post extensive protests across the nation, officials have completely swerved away from painting Covid as a lethal threat the population needed to be protected from to now saying it’s not dangerous, with one top adviser saying omicron could be likened to a “cold.”
However, the monumental rise in deaths that comes from reopening doesn’t fit with that messaging, especially with some experts predicting almost 1 million fatalities from this coming wave alone.