17 Dec 2022

New Covid-19 model predicts over 1 million deaths in China through 2023

4:05 pm on 17 December 2022
This photo taken late on October 7, 2022 shows workers erecting fencing around a neighbourhood in lockdown in Shanghai's Changning district, after new Covid-19 cases were reported. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP)

China recently relaxed its strict Covid-19 restrictions. Photo: AFP

By Julie Steenhuysen and Deena Beasley

China's abrupt lifting of stringent Covid-19 restrictions could result in an explosion of cases and over a million deaths through 2023, according to new projections from the US-based Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).

According to the group's projections, cases in China would peak around 1 April, when deaths would reach 322,000. About a third of China's population will have been infected by then, IHME director Christopher Murray said.

China's national health authority has not reported any official Covid deaths since the lifting of Covid restrictions. The last official deaths were reported on 3 December.

Total pandemic fatalities stand at 5235.

China lifted some of the world's toughest Covid restrictions in December after unprecedented public protests and was now experiencing a spike in infections, with fears Covid could sweep across its 1.4 billion population during next month's Lunar New Year holiday.

"Nobody thought they would stick to zero-Covid as long as they did," Murray said on Friday when the IHME projections were released online.

China's zero-Covid policy may have been effective at keeping earlier variants of the virus at bay, but the high transmissibility of Omicron variants made it impossible to sustain, he said.

The independent modeling group at the University of Washington in Seattle, which has been relied on by governments and companies throughout the pandemic, drew on provincial data and information from a recent Omicron outbreak in Hong Kong.

"China has since the original Wuhan outbreak barely reported any deaths. That is why we looked to Hong Kong to get an idea of the infection fatality rate," Murray said.

For its forecasts, IHME also used information on vaccination rates provided by the Chinese government as well as assumptions on how various provinces will respond as infection rates increase.

Other experts expect some 60 percent of China's population will eventually be infected, with a peak expected in January, hitting vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, the hardest.

Key concerns include China's large pool of susceptible individuals, the use of less effective vaccines and low vaccine coverage among those 80 and older, who were at greatest risk of severe disease.

Other models

Disease modelers at the University of Hong Kong predict that lifting Covid restrictions and simultaneously reopening all provinces in December 2022 through January 2023 would result in 684 deaths per million people during that timeframe, according to a paper released on Wednesday on the Medrxiv preprint server that has yet to undergo peer review.

Based on China's population of 1.41 billion, and without measures such as a mass vaccination booster campaign, that amounts to 964,400 deaths.

Another study published July 2022 in Nature Medicine by researchers at the School of Public Health at Fudan University in Shanghai predicted an Omicron wave absent restrictions would result in 1.55 million deaths over a six month period, and peak demand for intensive care units of 15.6 times higher than existing capacity.

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said there were 164 million people in China with diabetes, a risk factor for poor Covid outcomes. There were also 8 million people aged 80 and older who have never been vaccinated.

Chinese officials were now encouraging individuals to get boosted from a list of newer Chinese-made shots, however, the government was still reluctant to use foreign vaccines, Huang said.

China's National Health Commission said on Friday it was ramping up vaccinations and building stocks of ventilators and essential drugs.

- Reuters

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