China Faces 'Very Hard Road' in COVID Fight

Experts predict up to 2M deaths next year
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 23, 2022 3:59 AM CST
'Very Hard Road' Ahead as COVID Surges in China
A patient is turned away from the emergency room due to full capacity at the Baoding No. 2 Central Hospital in Zhuozhou city in northern China's Hebei province on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.   (AP Photo/Dake Kang, File)

Nearly three years after it was first identified in China, the coronavirus is now spreading through the vast country. Experts predict difficult months ahead for its 1.4 billion people. China’s unyielding "zero-COVID" approach, which aimed to isolate all infected people, bought it years to prepare for the disease. But an abrupt reopening, which was announced without warning on Dec. 7 in the wake of anti-lockdown protests, has caught the nation under-vaccinated and short on hospital capacity. Experts have forecast between a million and 2 million deaths next year. Predicting deaths has proven tricky throughout the pandemic, since it is influenced by varied factors and China presents an especially complicated case because of opaque information sharing, the AP reports.

It’s not clear exactly how large the current outbreak is, as China has reduced testing and stopped reporting most mild cases. But in cities and towns around Baoding and Langfang, in Hebei province, an area that was among the first to face an unchecked outbreak, Associated Press reporters saw hospital intensive care units overwhelmed by patients, and ambulances being turned away. Across the country, widespread reports of absences from work, shortages of fever-reducing medicine, and staff working overtime at crematoria suggest the virus is widespread. The country has exclusively used domestically made vaccines like CoronaVac, which rely on older technology than the mRNA vaccines used elsewhere that have shown the best protection against infection.

A study conducted in Hong Kong, which has administered both an mRNA vaccine and Sinovac’s CoronaVac, suggested that CoronaVac requires a third shot to provide comparable protection, especially for the elderly. An ordinary course of the vaccine is two shots, with an optional booster later. While China counts 90% of its population vaccinated, only around 60% have received a booster. Older people are especially likely to have not had a booster vaccine. Over 9 million people older than 80 have not had the third vaccine, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.

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Bill Hanage, co-director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, recently estimated China will see 2 million COVID deaths next year. "China has got a very, very hard road ahead of it in the coming months," he said. "But in the absence of vaccination, it would be much, much worse." (More China stories.)

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