China is in the middle of what may be the world’s largest covid-19 outbreak after authorities abruptly loosened almost three years of strict pandemic restrictions in December following nationwide protests against the measures.
The sudden dismantling of China’s “zero covid” regime - enforced through mass lockdowns, testing and contact tracing - has left the country’s health system unprepared and overwhelmed. It has alarmed international health experts concerned about Beijing’s transparency and caused diplomatic friction as countries enforce travel restrictions on arrivals from China.
Q: How many people have been infected?
A: So far, there are no reliable national figures for the number of people among China’s 1.4 billion population who have been infected in the current outbreak. After admitting the difficulty of tracking infections, China’s National Health Commission stopped reporting daily tallies in December.
The data is still maintained by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, based on counts from hospitals and local health commissions. But because mandatory mass testing has been dropped, the official figure is believed to massively underestimate the rate of infection. As of Jan. 8, there have been a little more than 500,000 confirmed covid cases since the pandemic began, according to the CDC.
Statements from local governments indicate that the true number of infections is exponentially higher. Officials in Henan province estimated this week that 89 percent of the province’s 99 million residents have been infected. In Zhejiang province, officials said the province was seeing over a million new infections a day in late December. As of Jan. 8, all 31 provinces, municipalities and regions had reported covid infections, according to the CDC.
Q: How serious is the outbreak?
A: The number of deaths remains unknown, even as evidence is mounting that the true death count is much higher than what has been reported - a little more than 5,200 deaths since the pandemic began and fewer than 40 since zero-covid restrictions were lifted on Dec. 7.
As of Dec. 25, the takeup of intensive care beds in secondary and tertiary hospitals across the country was about 54 percent, but that figure has since increased to 80 percent, Jiao Yahui, director of the Department of Medical Affairs of the National Health Commission, said in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV on Sunday.
Officials reassured the public by noting that the fatality rate of the coronavirus’s omicron variant is 0.1 percent. The current outbreak has mostly consisted of the omicron subvariants BA.5.2 and BF.7, the State Council Information Office said in a news conference Monday.
The lack of testing combined with the narrow definition of what counts as a covid death - positive patients who die of respiratory failure - continue to skew the statistics. Officials have said they will investigate fatalities and release the results in the future.
Q: What is the government saying?
A: Authorities say the worst of the outbreak is over for Chinese cities where infections spread quickly in December. Now, they are preparing for a new surge in rural areas around the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday that begins Jan. 21.
State media has reported that cases in most major cities have started to decline. Yin Yong, acting mayor of Beijing, told CCTV on Monday that the city had reached its peak and that authorities were turning their focus to monitoring potential new coronavirus variants or subvariants of omicron, and to mitigating the impact of covid on the elderly and other vulnerable groups.
Officials also said the peak had been reached in the province of Jiangsu in late December, while in Zhejiang, authorities said, “the first wave of infections has passed smoothly,” according to Health Times, a publication managed by People’s Daily. The state-run Farmers’ Daily said that visits to 51 villages across 31 provinces showed that most residents had been infected and had recovered.
Data released by Baidu, the main search engine in China, showed that the number of searches related to covid symptoms and medical supplies had dropped since peaking in mid-December.
Yet in Henan, officials said hospitals remain overcrowded because of a rise in critical cases in the past week. Researchers at the Institute of Public Health at Nankai University in Tianjin, using data from fever clinics, project that the nationwide peak will be between Dec. 20 and Jan. 15, with two smaller peaks in the first half of this year.
Officials have predicted a second wave over the Lunar New Year holiday, when the total number of passenger trips by residents is expected to reach 2.1 billion as pent-up demand for travel is unleashed. At this point, more contagion could spread to rural areas, where severe shortages of anti-fever drugs and medical staff have been reported.
Q: How did zero covid affect the outbreak?
A: China’s pursuit of zero covid, eliminating the spread of the virus through lockdowns, mandatory quarantines, travel restrictions and mass testing, has proved to be a double-edged sword. While the approach kept infections and death rates low throughout most of the pandemic, it left the Chinese population with little natural immunity to the virus.
Many elderly residents - already skeptical of vaccines, which have had a troubled past in China - did not get vaccinated, feeling that they would be protected by the zero-covid strategy. Only 40 percent of residents above the age of 80 have had booster shots.
Under China’s covid policy, the population was immunized with domestically made vaccines that are not as effective against the omicron variant as mRNA vaccines. China has yet to approve foreign mRNA vaccines, and a domestically made one is still under production.
Q: What does this mean for the rest of the world?
A: Concerns about the possibility of a new variant emerging in China have prompted countries including the United States, Japan and South Korea, and many European countries, to require extra screening for arrivals from China.
Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist at the CDC, told CCTV in a report published Sunday that no new variants have emerged and that new strains are being collected every day to monitor changes.
“All the strains we found so far have already been shared with international sharing platforms,” he said. “They are the ones either reported abroad, or have been introduced to China after spreading overseas. So far, no newly emerged mutated strains have been found in China.”
The World Health Organization has called on China to share more real-time data on the outbreak. Michael Ryan, the health emergencies director, said at a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday that the WHO “still believes that deaths are heavily underreported from China.” He added: “We still do not have adequate information to make a full comprehensive risk assessment.”
Beijing has criticized travel restrictions on people arriving from China imposed by other countries as “ridiculous” and politically motivated. It has threatened countermeasures and this week suspended short-term visas for Japanese and South Korean citizens.
Lily Kuo is The Washington Post’s China bureau chief. She previously served as the Beijing bureau chief for the Guardian. Before that she reported for Quartz in Kenya, Hong Kong and New York, and for Reuters in New York and Washington. The Washington Post’s Lyric Li in Seoul and Vic Chiang and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.