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Eight in 10 people in China have caught Covid since early December, officials say | China

About 80% of the Chinese population has been infected with Covid-19 since restrictions were lifted in early December, Chinese health authorities said.

The figure, believed to be around 1.2 billion people but cannot be confirmed by outside bodies, has prompted some pandemic experts to estimate that more than a million may have died – far higher than the official government tally. of around 72,000.

A wave of Omicron cases engulfed China after the government abruptly ended its zero-Covid policy last December, lifting the restrictions shortly before the beginning of the Lunar New Year and the Spring Festival. On Saturday, China’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said about 80% of the country’s 1.41 billion people had been infected during this wave.

In the week leading up to the Lunar New Year, the CDC reported 12,658 deaths, adding to the official pandemic toll of nearly 60,000, which most observers believe is far lower than the actual figure. Until a dramatic increase updated earlier this monththe official toll of this wave would be less than 60 deaths.

The increase in the number of cases in December quickly overwhelmed data collection processes. Coupled with a narrow definition of a death attributed to Covid, official counts quickly appeared to fall far short of the reality on the ground, and the government was accused of lack of data transparency by WHO.

Beijing dismissed the accusation and defended the zero-Covid policy and its sudden dismantling. Some health officials acknowledged the data discrepancies, but said now is the time to focus on health response.

Data and transparency issues have prompted experts to seek other ways to estimate the impact of the epidemic.

Professor Robert Booy, an infectious disease pediatrician at the University of Sydney, said the death toll was likely to be between 600,000 and 1 million. Booy and other experts who spoke to the Guardian said the virus was probably already spreading far more widely than thought before restrictions were lifted.

“China may have abandoned its zero Covid policy in the first week of December, but it was probably already struggling and failing,” he said. “In 2022, China lost its population for the first time since the Great Leap Forward – a drop of 850,000 people. They will lose at least that number in the coming weeks of Covid, mostly very old people who don’t have not been fully vaccinated.

Dr Xi Chen, an associate professor of health policy and economics at Yale, said no one has good enough data to accurately assess the death toll in China, but to make cautious assumptions that he has the The lowest death rate of 0.11% would suggest that around 1.23 million people had died.

“Of course, that assumes that China has health resources like South Korea and New Zealand,” he added.

Professor Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, based his estimate on excess mortality rates – the number of deaths from all causes that exceed the average – of other countries that have passed their major firsts. Covid waves.

“If you take Hong Kong, you have excess mortality today… which is around 2,000 deaths per million. If you convert that rate to China, you get to just under 3 million deaths,” he said, adding the caveat that China’s health care system was not as systematically developed as the health care systems. other places, including Hong Kong.

“If you take Brazil, the figure is close to 4,000 per million, so it’s double,” Flahault said.

James Trauer, head of Monash University’s Epidemiological Modeling Unit, cautioned against the estimates so early in the wave, noting it was unclear how China’s CDC was able to produce the 80 figure. %, given data collection issues.

The CDC advisory had said that vacation travel could further spread the virus in the short term, but that because so many people were already infected, “the possibility of a large-scale epidemic rebound or a second wave of ‘epidemics across the country is very low’.

Trauer cautioned against thinking a wave of Omicron brought high levels of herd immunity. “In Australia we had a huge first wave with BA1 last summer and then the second wave with BA2 came right after in a few months. I don’t think they should assume that because the numbers are dropping, they don’t have to worry,” he said.

“Probably the most important thing from the Chinese perspective right now is to better manage the outbreak and increase resources to treat people who get sick.”

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