CHICAGO, Dec 16 (Reuters) – China’s sudden lifting of strict COVID-19 restrictions could lead to a spike in cases, with more than 100 cases by 2023, according to new forecasts from the U.S.-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). Thousands of people died.
According to the group’s forecast, cases in China will peak around April 1, when the death toll will reach 322,000. About a third of China’s population will be infected by then, said IHME Director Christopher Murray.
China’s national health authorities have not reported any official COVID deaths since COVID restrictions were lifted. The last official death report was on 12 December. 3.
The total death toll from the pandemic was 5,235.
China lifted some of the world’s strictest COVID restrictions in December following unprecedented public outcry, and now infections are surging and there are fears that COVID could hit its 1.4 billion population during next month’s Lunar New Year holiday.
“Nobody thinks they’re going to stick to zero COVID the way they are,” Murray said Friday when the IHME forecast was released online.
China’s zero-COVID policy may have been effective in stopping early variants of the virus, but the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant made it unsustainable, he said.
The independent modeling group at the University of Washington in Seattle, which has been relied upon by governments and companies throughout the pandemic, drew on provincial data and information from the recent Omicron outbreak in Hong Kong.
“Since the original Wuhan outbreak, China has reported hardly any deaths. That’s why we want to look at infection death rates through Hong Kong,” Murray said.
The IHME forecast also uses information on vaccination rates provided by the Chinese government, as well as assumptions about how provinces will respond if infection rates rise.
Other experts predict that about 60% of China’s population will eventually be infected, with an expected peak in January, hitting vulnerable groups such as the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions the hardest.
Key concerns include the large number of susceptible people in China, the use of less effective vaccines and low vaccine coverage among people aged 80 and over, who are most at risk of severe illness.
According to a paper posted on the Medrxiv preprint server on Wednesday, disease modellers at the University of Hong Kong predict that lifting COVID restrictions and simultaneously reopening all provinces between December 2022 and January 2023 will lead to an increase in every 100 provinces during that period. 684 out of 10,000 people died. Not yet peer reviewed.
Based on China’s 1.41 billion population, if measures such as mass vaccination are not taken, the death toll will be 964,400. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2022.12.14.22283460v1.full.pdf
Another study, published in the journal Nature Medicine in July 2022 by researchers at the Fudan University School of Public Health in Shanghai, predicted that an unrestricted wave of Omicrons would result in 1.55 million deaths within six months, with 1.55 million deaths in intensive care units. Peak demand will increase 15.6 times compared to existing capacity. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-022-01855-7
Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said 164 million people in China had diabetes, a risk factor for poor COVID outcomes. Another 8 million people aged 80 and over have never been vaccinated.
Huang said Chinese officials are now encouraging individuals to get a boost from a series of newer Chinese-made vaccines, however, the government remains reluctant to use foreign vaccines.
China’s National Health Commission said on Friday it was ramping up vaccinations and building up stocks of ventilators and essential medicines.
Additional reporting by Deena Beasley in Los Angeles; Editing by Caroline Humer and Michael Perry
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