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China’s Covid numbers

China’s Covid numbers

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The World Health Organisation has accused China of underrepresenting the severity of its Covid outbreak and the real number of deaths. What do we know about what’s really happening?

“China has just announced a major nation-wide easing of its zero Covid policy, a week after protests against the controls spread across the country.”

BBC News

In early December, after three years of trying to eliminate Covid altogether, Chinese officials announced they were dropping the country’s “zero Covid” policy. 

For millions of people, life changed overnight. They were allowed to mix more freely, they were no longer forced to quarantine in government facilities if they had mild Covid symptoms and testing for entry into most public spaces was scrapped.

But the easing of these strict policies quickly led to a surge in cases across China.

“Beijing is facing its worst Covid outbreak after the government eased strict containment measures nearly two weeks ago.”

CNN

“The chief of the World Health Organisation says he’s very concerned about the increase in cases of Covid-19 in China.”

BBC News

Pictures and videos of Chinese hospitals began circulating on social media, showing patients in corridors and makeshift wards.

Morgues quickly began to fill up, with families waiting for hours, often overnight, to secure a slot for cremating their dead loved ones. 

Pharmacies have largely run out of cold and flu drugs, Ibuprofen tablets have quadrupled in price, and a limit has been put on the number of pills each customer can buy.

But despite all of this, since lifting its zero-Covid policy, the Chinese government’s official death toll has barely risen, which has made other countries – and the World Health Organisation – suspicious.

“It’s a really interesting and significant statement that we’re getting from the WHO. They’re calling on China to share more data about Covid-19 and they’re also warning that China is under representing the true toll of its runaway Covid-19 outbreak.”

CNN

So what’s really going on?

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China has changed how it counts Covid cases and deaths. Covid deaths are only counted if they’re caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure. Deaths from other complications caused by Covid such as blood clots, kidney failure and heart attacks aren’t included. 

And it’s not just the official death toll that’s suspect, it’s the number of cases too.

“So we think Covid is spreading more rapidly than those official numbers suggest. Up to two million cases a day, and unfortunately up to around 15,000 deaths a day.”

Dr. Louise Blair, Head of Vaccines and Epidemiology, Airfinity

This is Dr. Louise Blair, head of vaccines and epidemiology at Airfinity.

“Airfinity is a life science data analytics company so we gather all data on different infectious diseases from lots of different sources to try and make sense of what’s really happening, with an infectious disease in a region or a country.”

Dr. Louise Blair, Head of Vaccines and Epidemiology, Airfinity

Their modelling, which is just a forecast, suggests that China’s latest Covid surge hasn’t peaked yet, meaning the daily death rate is likely to keep rising. If the forecast is right, the figures are startling – there are currently 15,000 deaths per day, which already means more than 190,000 deaths across China since December.

Put that alongside China’s official death toll – which claims  just over 5,200 people have died in the past three years of the pandemic.

“Because we’ve done it on a province by province basis… we’re expecting two peaks… in some provinces cases started growing a little bit earlier and therefore will peak earlier. Beijing currently going a, a really steep rising in cases, whereas more rural areas and provinces, um, are maybe yet to see that.”

Dr. Louise Blair, Head of Vaccines and Epidemiology, Airfinity

China’s first peak is expected to be around 3.7 million cases a day in mid-January, with the second in early March at 4.2 million a day.

***

Airfinity’s estimated daily death toll is so high because the Chinese population has low natural immunity despite having high vaccination rates – partly that’s because the government chose to only use vaccines that had been developed by China itself.

“They have relied on more traditional vaccine technologies, which have been shown for these Covid vaccines not to be as effective as mRNA.”

Dr. Louise Blair, Head of Vaccines and Epidemiology, Airfinity

All of this means other countries are now placing travel restrictions on people coming from China.

“The British government announced that all passengers travelling to England from mainland China will be required to produce a negative Covid test before boarding their flight..”

BBC News

And Dr. Louise Blair says that although infections in China are expected to peak in early Spring, Covid isn’t going anywhere.

“It is likely that once this is over, they will continue to see waves just like we’re seeing in other countries. It’s how countries continue to manage ongoing Covid. For example, some countries are still seeing a significant impact. Japan has recorded its highest number of deaths in a single month in December, and it’s how countries respond via boosters, via treatments, and how they can manage that situation… going forward… that will be important going into the future.”

Dr. Louise Blair, Head of Vaccines and Epidemiology, Airfinity

This episode was written and mixed by Imy Harper.