Beijing’s swift dismantling of Covid Zero restrictions has led to the unfettered spread of the highly contagious omicron variants in a population with low levels of natural immunity
Nearly 37 million people in China may have been infected with Covid-19 on a single day this week, according to estimates from the government’s top health authority, making the country’s outbreak by far the world’s largest.
As many as 248 million people, or nearly 18 per cent of the population, likely contracted the virus in the first 20 days of December, according to minutes from an internal meeting of China’s National Health Commission held on Wednesday, confirmed with people involved in the discussions. If accurate, the infection rate would dwarf the previous daily record of about 4 million, set in January 2022.
Beijing’s swift dismantling of Covid Zero restrictions has led to the unfettered spread of the highly contagious omicron variants in a population with low levels of natural immunity. More than half the residents of Sichuan province, in China’s southwest, and the capital Beijing have been infected, according to the agency’s estimates.
How the Chinese health regulator came up with its estimate is unclear, as the country shut down its once ubiquitous network of PCR testing booths earlier this month.
The NHC didn’t respond to a request for comment faxed by Bloomberg News. National Disease Control Bureau, which overseas the Covid response, also didn’t respond.
People in China are using rapid antigen tests to detect infections, and they aren’t obligated to report positive results. Meanwhile, the government has stopped publishing the daily number of cases.
Chen Qin, chief economist at MetroDataTech, forecasts China’s current wave will peak between mid-December and late January in most cities. His model suggests the reopening surge is already responsible for tens of millions of infections daily, with the largest case counts in the urban cities.
The minutes of the meeting didn’t note discussion on how many people have died. While acknowledging that deaths will inevitably occur as the virus spreads rapidly.
Officials said Beijing is starting to see critical Covid cases peak even as its overall infection rate is waning. Meanwhile, the outbreak is spreading from urban centers to rural China, where medical resources are often lacking.
The agency warned every region to prepare for the coming surge in severe disease.
The 37 million daily cases estimated for December 20 is a dramatic deviation from the official tally of just 3,049 infections reported in China for that day. It is also several times higher than the previous world record for the pandemic. Global cases hit an all-time high of 4 million on January 19, 2022, amid an initial wave of omicron infections.
The scale of infection
suggested by the official estimates underscores the challenge China faces after it abruptly pivoted from the Covid Zero regime that largely kept the virus at bay for the past three years.
Hospitals in major Chinese cities including Beijing and Shanghai have been overwhelmed with a sudden surge in patients, while crematoriums struggle to handle the onslaught of deaths.