Lightning fast China COVID surge sparks fears millions could die

  • Experts have warned COVID is spreading so fast nearly two-thirds of the country could get infected in the coming three months

  • On December 7th, President Xi abruptly loosened swathes of lockdown rules in the face of mass protests

  • The subsequent outbreak suggests China's policy of 'zero-COVID' has failed

  • Read the full article below to understand the potential impact on other countries

People queue to buy medicine at a pharmacy amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Nanjing, in China's eastern Jiangsu province on December 20, 2022. - China OUT (Photo by AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
People queue to buy medicine at a pharmacy in Nanjing as COVID cases grow. (Getty Images)

Health experts fear that 60% of people in China - or 10% of the global population - could become infected with COVID-19 in the next three months amid a dramatic surge in infections.

Faced with growing protests and increasing public anger over Beijing's consistently draconian measures throughout the pandemic, President Xi Jinping took the decision in early December to abruptly loosen lockdown curbs.

It was seen by many as an admission of failure on the country's zero-COVID policy.

As infections surge, some experts have warned that letting the virus rip through a population with comparatively low natural immunity could result in up to 2.1 million deaths in a worst-case scenario.

It has also raised the uncomfortable prospect of further mutations that could spread overseas to other parts of the world. This week, the US government described the new Chinese wave as a "threat for people everywhere".

Read more: Chinese TV accused of editing out shots of World Cup fans without face masks

Commuters wear protective masks while they ride a subway train as coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreaks continue in Shanghai, China, December 20, 2022. REUTERS/Casey Hall
Commuters wear masks on a Shaghai subway train, while many stay at home voluntarily. (Reuters)

China has officially recorded around 6,000 COVID related deaths out of a population of 1.4 billion people, compared to over 210,000 among the UK’s population of 68 million.

However, until very recently it appeared Chinese people were willing to tolerate being forced into quarantine camps and barriers being erected to keep them in their districts.

Now, China has shifted to a “living with COVID” model.

Its vaccination rate is officially above 90%, but the rate for boostered adults drops to 57.9%, and to 42.3% for people aged 80 and above, according to government data.

The absence of local doctors in vaccine drives, poor medical understanding and a lack of insurance for potential side effects has also dampened enthusiasm, a publication under China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned.

What's more, vaccines developed overseas, such as the Pfizer and Moderna jabs, are not available to the general public in China.

Read more: Concern grows over China’s Covid surge as cities scramble to bolster health services

Beds are seen in a fever clinic that was set up in a sports area as coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreaks continue in Beijing, December 20, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
Beds at a fever clinic set up in a sports hall in Beijing to cope with COVID outbreaks. (Reuters)

While medics believe Chinese made Sinopharm and Sinovac-CoronaVac vaccines to be safe, they have doubts over their efficacy compared to foreign-made mRNA counterparts, according to Kelly Lei, a doctor in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.

This, combined with a lack of natural immunity due to years of restrictions, appears to be taking its toll.

Some estimates suggest that half of Beijing's population of 22 million people may already have COVID-19, according to the Financial Times.

Health experts expect 60% of China's population - or 10% of the Earth's population, to become infected over the coming 90 days, according to epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding,

Sharing a video clip of an overcrowded ward on Twitter, he said: "Hospitals completely overwhelmed in China ever since restrictions dropped... this is just the start."

A recent study by London-based health analytics firm Airfinity suggested lifting zero-COVID now could lead to between 1.3 and 2.1 million deaths among China’s still vulnerable population.

Read more: China reports 1st COVID-19 deaths in weeks — and that number may rise, experts say

A man holds white sheets of paper in protest over coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions after a vigil for the victims of a fire in Urumqi, as outbreaks of COVID-19 continue, in Beijing, China, November 28, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
November saw a wave of protests against zero-COVID lockdown measures in major cities across China. (Reuters)

Scientists at China's National Health Commission, meanwhile, estimate the country's R number is currently an alarming 16, meaning every single person who is infected will, on average, pass the virus onto 16 others.

Since the current surge, there have been reports of hospitals becoming inundated, pharmacies emptied of medicines, and many people going into self-imposed lockdowns.

"People are staying away because they are sick or scared of getting sick, but mostly now, I think it’s because they are actually sick,” a trainer at a nearly empty Shanghai gym told the Reuters news agency.

Bodies are already reported to be piling up in some morgues and crematoriums amid some claims that Beijing is covering up the true scale of COVID-related deaths.

As well as having a huge human cost, the current surge of cases could also have a serious impact on China's economy, with a more sickly workforce leading to disrupted logistics and slower production.

China's GDP is expected to grow just 3% this year, its worst performance in nearly half a century.

Read more: COVID: China has ‘had an incredible amount of weight placed on them,’ economist says

China's President Xi Jinping attends the 29th APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting (AELM) during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok, Thailand on November 19, 2022.  Jack Taylor/Pool via REUTERS
China's President Xi Jinping was under pressure to do something, but a complete lifting of such heavy restrictions could have dramatic consequences. (Reuters)

A World Economics survey showed business confidence in the country fell in December to its lowest since January 2013.

The People’s Republic made up 28.4% of global production in 2019, according to United Nations data, and it is the largest exporter of consumer goods.

"The toll of the virus is of concern to the rest of the world given the size of China's GDP, given the size of China's economy," US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Monday.

Read more: Hearses line in Beijing after Covid curbs removed

He added: "It's not only good for China to be in a stronger position vis-a-vis COVID but it's good for the rest of the world as well."

Beijing, however, appeared to have been caught between a rock and a hard place, with some economists saying its zero-COVID policy was holding China back and had left many small businesses on their knees.

The potential impact on other countries should not be underestimated either.

Price added that anytime the virus is spreading, it has the potential to mutate, which makes it a "threat for people everywhere".

Read more: China 'a significant threat to the UK on many different levels' and dependency should be curbed, MPs warn

Xu Wenbo, an official with the Chinese CDC, told reporters new mutations would occur but played down concerns.

"New strains' immune escape ability becomes stronger, more contagious," Xu said. "But the possibility of them becoming more lethal is low. The possibility of strains that are more contagious and more pathogenic is even lower."

Others are more cautious.

"Every new epidemic wave in another country brings the risk of new variants, and this risk is higher the bigger the outbreak, and the current wave in China is shaping up to be big," said Alex Cook, vice-dean for research at the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.