Why Is The World In Panic Mode Over China’s Latest COVID Wave?

New Delhi: There is a growing concern worldwide following Beijing’s admission that the scale of the COVID-19 outbreak has become “impossible” to track after the end of mandatory mass testing last month. The lack of data and transparency amid the surge in China has countries worried.

The National Health Commission has stopped publishing daily nationwide infection and death statistics. That responsibility has been transferred to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which will only publish figures once a month after China downgrades its management protocols for the disease on January 8. China has only reported 15 Covid deaths since it began unwinding restrictions on December 7, shortly after which it narrowed the criteria by which deaths from the virus are recorded, NDTV reported quoting news agency AFP.

This has stoked concerns that the wave of infections is not being accurately reflected in official statistics. Authorities admitted last week that the scale of data collected is “much smaller” than when mandatory mass PCR testing was in place, the report added.

CDC official Yin Wenwu was quoted as saying that authorities are now compiling data from hospitals and local government surveys as well as emergency call volumes and fever medicine sales, which will “make up for deficiencies in our reporting”. Chinese hospitals and crematoriums are struggling with an influx of patients and bodies, with rural areas hit particularly hard. Several countries including the United States, Australia and Canada last week said they were imposing testing restrictions on arrivals from China because of a lack of transparency on infection data.

According to the report, leaked notes from a meeting of health officials last month revealed they believed 250 million people had been infected across China in the first 20 days of December. Independent infection models paint a grim picture. University of Hong Kong researchers have estimated nearly one million Chinese may die this winter as a result of opening up. Health risk analysis firm Airfinity forecast 11,000 deaths and 1.8 million infections per day, with a total of 1.7 million fatalities by the end of April.

Concern over new variants

Although there is as yet no evidence of new strains emerging from the current wave, top CDC official Xu Wenbo said last month that China was developing a national genetic database of COVID samples derived from hospital surveillance that would help track mutations.

Chinese health experts have said in recent days that the Omicron subvariants BA.5.2 and BF.7 are most prevalent in Beijing, in response to public fears that the Delta variant may still be circulating. They said Omicron also remained the most dominant strain in Shanghai, AFP reported.

Beijing has submitted 384 Omicron samples in the past month to the global online database GISAID, according to its website. But the country’s total number of submissions to the database, at 1,308, is dwarfed by those of other nations, including the United States, Britain, Cambodia and Senegal. Recent samples from China “all closely resemble known globally circulating variants seen… between July and December,” GISAID was quoted as saying.

The report further quoted the University of Hong Kong virologist Jin Dong-yan as saying on an independent podcast last month that people need not fear the risk of a deadlier new variant in China. “Many places all over the world have experienced (large-scale infection) but a more deadly or pathogenic variant did not emerge afterwards,” said Jin. “I’m not saying that the emergence of a (more deadly) strain is completely impossible, but the possibility is very small.”


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