Just how bad China’s current COVID situation is remains a mystery. But according to one of the country’s top health officials, one thing is for sure: It’s much worse than Beijing feared it would be.
Zeng Guang, former chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has admitted that “we didn’t expect the first wave to be this vehement,” The Times reported Friday. After the Chinese government dropped key restrictions of its “zero-COVID” approach to managing the pandemic earlier this month, COVID infections rapidly spread to engulf over half of the population in many urban areas, Zeng said, before continuing to spread further. He added that around 17 million people in Beijing—or 80 percent of the capital’s population—might have been infected.
The stark assessment runs counter to the narrative being pushed by other Chinese health officials who continue to insist that the country is not under-reporting COVID deaths despite accounts and images circulating on social media of long queues outside crematoria and packed ICUs.
On Thursday, Liang Wannian, leader of the National Health Commission’s COVID-19 expert response team, said accurately estimating the death rate was difficult in the midst of a huge outbreak of cases. “It is only after the wave when we can calculate the case fatality rate and death rate more accurately,” Liang told a news conference reported by the South China Morning Post.
Officially, China’s CDC says that only 12 new COVID deaths have been recorded since the zero-COVID measures were ditched on Dec. 7, taking China’s total COVID death toll to just 5,247 since the pandemic began.
But those figures have been called into question by international observers who fear the true toll may be much higher. On Friday, U.K.-based health data company Airfinity released a study estimating that roughly 11,000 people are dying with COVID in China every day, with the forecast predicting that infections will peak around Jan. 13 at 3.7 million cases a day. Around 10 days later, deaths will peak at 25,000 a day, the study adds.
The alarming uncertainty around China’s COVID crisis comes as health officials around the world are scrambling to protect their own populations from possible new mutations which could emerge as the virus sweeps through China’s 1.4 billion residents.
This week, the United States has introduced a requirement for air passengers traveling from China to produce a negative COVID test within two days of departure or documentation of recovery. South Korea, Italy, and Spain have similarly announced new checks on arrivals from China, and other European countries—including the U.K., Germany, and France—have new restrictions in the pipeline.
Chinese state media has called such measures “unfounded” and “discriminatory,” and questioned the motives of other countries seeking to reimpose checks. “The real intention is to sabotage China’s three years of COVID-19 control efforts and attack the country's system,” the state-run Global Times said in an article Thursday.