China’s decision to stick with draconian restrictions for so long is to blame for the ‘thermonuclear’ Covid wave that could kill up to a million people, experts warned today.
Startling projections since Beijing U-turned on its tough zero Covid stance suggest hundreds of thousands will die in the coming months because of low immunity across the country’s 1.4billion population.
Immunologists predict up to 60 per cent of the country will get infected between now an March, as the virus is allowed to rip.
Deaths will likely be in the ‘millions — plural’, one leading expert said, adding: ‘This is just the start.’
Pictured: Emergency health workers transport a Covid patient to a fever clinic at a hospital in Beijing yesterday
Official figures show Covid cases fell 47 per cent to 4,666 on December. Infections appear to have peaked back on November 29, when they totalled more than 71,000. But the figures are highly unreliable because mass testing in China was abandoned as part of the Government’s U-turn
China also reported no new Covid deaths yesterday and subtracted one death from its overall toll, lowering it to 5,241
Hubei in central China has seen the most cases since the start of the pandemic, with around 68,154 infections recorded
China had consistently reported fewer cases than countries in the West throughout the pandemic — due to different ways of counting — until the recent surge
Shocking footage shared online over the past few day show sick patients on respirators packing out hospital wards, with many forced to lie on the floor because beds have run out.
One clip shows an exhausted doctor collapsing because he was thought to have seen so many patients. Crematoriums say they have run out of space to keep bodies.
Experts today told MailOnline the capitulation has been caused by President Xi’s Government sticking with its zero Covid policy so long after rolling out vaccines.
The hermit strategy left China’s population with little to no natural immunity.
In contrast, countries in the West, including Britain, resorted to living with the virus, which now poses a milder threat thanks to immunity afforded by the vaccine and natural infections.
Official figures show Covid cases in China fell 47 per cent in a week to an average of 1,801 a day on December 20.
Infections appear to have peaked back on November 29, when they totalled more than 71,000.
But the figures are highly unreliable because mass testing in China was abandoned as part of the Government’s U-turn.
Even the Chinese authorities admit they do not know what the real numbers are — but experts believe the virus is running rampant.
Wang Guangfa, a doctor at Peking University First Hospital, described the surge as a ‘pandemic tsunami’.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus yesterday said: ‘WHO is very concerned over the evolving situation in China, with increasing reports of severe disease.’
Despite the suspected increase, China — which has repeatedly been accused of fiddling its numbers — also reported no new Covid deaths yesterday and subtracted one death from its overall toll, lowering it to 5,241.
The daily tally was issued by the National Health Commission, which did not explain the decrease.
Wang Guiqiang, the head of infectious disease at the same hospital in Peking, confirmed earlier this week that deaths in patients with pre-existing illnesses are not officially counted as Covid deaths.
In most countries, including the UK and US, guidelines stipulate that any death in which Covid is a factor or contributor is counted as a related death.
In effect, Wang’s comments on Tuesday clarified publicly what the country has been doing throughout the pandemic.
Even with underreporting, the latest projection, published in the medical journal Nature, suggest up to a million could die in the coming months.
Professor David Livermore, a microbiologist at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline: ‘China is in for a few grim weeks as zero Covid is unravelled.
‘There will be a major surge of infections.
‘Given China’s vast population and the low rates of vaccination in the vulnerable elderly there will be large numbers of deaths.
‘Those who were vaccinated received killed whole virus vaccines, not western mRNA products.
‘Hong Kong’s experience, back in the spring, was that these killed-virus preparations were less effective in reducing mortality.’
Chinese Covid vaccines — Sinovac and Sinopharm — are widely considered to be less effective than the mRNA vaccines used in most other nations.
The country’s vaccination drive began to tail off in early February, when around 7million people a day were getting a shot.
Booster doses over the summer were virtually non-existent, with people largely protected by stringent Covid measures and mass testing.
But since the policy-change, the virus has been allowed to rip through a population that had largely not been exposed to the virus.
Some of the first projections since the country U-turned on zero Covid suggest hundreds of thousands will die in the coming months
Patients recover at the Baoding No. 2 Central Hospital in Zhuozhou city in northern China’s Hebei province on Wednesday
This picture shows Covid patients on stretchers in the emergency ward of the First Affiliated Hospital of Chongqing Medical University in China’s southwestern city of Chongqing on December 22
People queue for a Covid test at a facility in Macau, China, on December 21
Experts told MailOnline dropping zero Covid wasn’t the problem — it was dropping it so late after vaccinating the population.
Professor Paul Hunter, another public health expert at UEA, said any weak immunity afforded by the jabs had long run-off by the time measures were abandoned.
And because people were not topped up with immunity afforded by natural infection, they are particularly vulnerable now.
He said: ‘China’s problem now is not because they lifted the restrictions too soon but because they maintained zero Covid policy too long after the vaccination campaign so that the protective effect of the vaccination has been largely lost.
‘Compare this to New Zealand, who lifted their restrictions soon after the vaccination campaign and got away with few deaths even though there was a surge in infections as expected.’
The surge in cases has led some leading to experts to call China the ‘ideal’ breeding ground for risky variants because of how it has been sheltered from previous waves and has a low vaccine uptake.
High infection rates are a ‘cauldron of virus evolution’ which could result in a more lethal and immune-evading variant, they said.
There is little surveillance to check for strains in the country, meaning a new one could appear at any time.
But not all pandemic-watchers are as concerned. The BF.7 Omicron substrain thought to be behind the current outbreak has not been shown to have an advantage on variants in the West.
Professor Hunter said: ‘I don’t think the situation in China will pose a substantial additional risk to many other countries. After all, most of the rest of the world has hybrid immunity.
‘It is said that it is the BF.7 variant of Omicron that is driving the wave in China but at a global scale this variant does not appear to have any growth advantage against other variants.
‘Yes another variant could arise and probably will arise, they are doing so all the time but each new variant seems to have decreasing incremental benefit over previous ones.
‘Also hybrid immunity has provided good cross protection against severe disease from new variants as well as older variants.’
Medical workers push a man past an ambulance at the Baoding No. 2 Central Hospital in Zhuozhou city in northern China’s Hebei province on Wednesday
Hearses queue outside a funeral home in Beijing, China, on December 17, as morgue pack out with Covid patients
Professor Livermore said the less effective jabs used in China are also unlikely to select for vaccine immunity-evading variants.
He said: ‘I don’t think this surge has major implications for the rest of the world.
‘Whilst the Chinese vaccines are not particularly effective they are, at least, targeted against the whole virus, inducing antibodies to multiple viral proteins. This should make it harder for the virus to mutate away from them.
‘The selection pressure for the evolution of new variants appears greatest in someone who has received one of the western mRNA or DNA vaccines and is then infected.
‘These vaccines solely target the virus’s Spike protein, which is highly variable — and it’s this variation that provides the route to vaccine escape.’
While the surge may not pose much of a threat to the rest of the world in terms of new strains, it is an immediate danger in China itself.
A citizen in Shanghai told of deserted streets, closed supermarkets and empty offices as the virus continues to rampage.
‘I think the official numbers are fake, how can a few hundred cases be possible across China?,’ said a 43-year-old man, speaking to MailOnline over an encrypted Signal call, who preferred not to be named.
‘People don’t believe the government numbers. They are not stupid! They will chat among themselves, but never discuss it on social media.
‘Even if they do, the comments will be deleted immediately.’
He and his partner recently contracted Covid themselves and ‘had a fever of 39 degrees, cough, body-ache and a sore throat and stayed in bed for a few days’.
‘Partly we feel happy because of the relaxation of Covid measures, but at the same time we are ill and we need to find ways to get Panadol, electrolytes replenishment drinks and rapid test kits,’ he said.
A lot more people are ill, he believes. ‘Beijing is worse. The Government probably wants all of us to get infected.’
He has a friend in Beijing who said there are many deaths but no actual number being released. ‘My friend said the funeral homes in Beijing cannot cope.’
People testing positive are left to their own devices, he said. ‘The hospital called up my friend about his positive test result, that’s it, he wasn’t told to self-isolate or quarantine.
‘No one will be taken to a quarantine facility anymore if tested positive. Pretty much you sink or swim by yourself.’
He said his ‘conspiracy theory’ was: ‘If people get sick, they won’t be on the streets to protest.’
Unlike in the West, vaccines have not been widely pushed: ‘The Government hasn’t made vaccines compulsory, neither promoted it.
‘Now they’re like “come on, it [Covid] is just like a flu, get it, let it go!” You see this 180-degree change?
‘Since last week, everything has been cancelled. No need to take test at test centres on the street.
‘Some employers don’t require staff to do any Covid tests or show a negative test result.’
But he did tentatively welcome the Chinese Government’s U-turn in dropping its ‘dynamic zero’ Covid policy and relaxing restrictions.
He said: ‘I fear the virus but it’s better to catch it now while everybody does and it seems to have weakened, I’d rather take a risk.
‘The virus might mutate, who knows. But I think if that happens, the Government won’t tell us.’
Visitors line up at the cash counters in Baoding No. 2 Central Hospital in Zhuozhou city in northern China’s Hebei province on Wednesday
People queue for a Covid test at a facility in Macau on December 21
A Covid patient on a stretcher in the emergency ward of the First Affiliated Hospital of Chongqing Medical University in China’s southwestern city of Chongqing on December 22
He believes that the government knows how widespread is the virus, he thinks the government was forced to relax the measures because it was getting out of control.
He said his partner’s office, where 50 people normally work is now reduced to a fifth of that number ‘The office spans over two floors, only 10 people went to work, they must either be infected with Covid or related to someone who has been infected.’
And in the streets, usually packed with delivery drivers, little is moving.
He went to the supermarket today and it’s closed, he believed due to Covid infection among staff.
Of the local news reports, he said: ‘News here is not so updated. I don’t know the reality.
‘I heard from a friend in Beijing that there are queues at hospitals, so I think it’s crazy in China, we’re probably not at the peak yet.
‘They tell us the number of cases every day in the news, but people respond “ha ha ha” — they’re used to “news”.’
He said the government still has the same narrative that Covid is imported. He said: ‘They will use terms like “imported” in announcements, but that’s not the focus anymore. No one cares if it’s imported.’
He doesn’t think there’ll be another lock down because so many people are infected now.
‘The point of a lockdown is to stop the spread of the virus, but now the Government is letting people get infected, so there probably won’t be another lockdown.’
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