China Covid surge may have infected 37 million people in a day

Up to 248 million caught the virus in the first 20 days of December, Chinese health officials estimate

Hospitals in China are struggling to cope with a surge in Covid-19 case numbers.  EPA
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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, nearly 18 per cent of the population, are thought to have contracted the virus in the first 20 days of December, according to minutes from a meeting on Wednesday of China’s National Health Commission, which were confirmed by people involved in the discussions.

If accurate, the infection rate dwarfs the global daily record of about four million, set in January 2022.

Beijing’s swift dismantling of its zero-Covid 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 south-west, and the capital Beijing have been infected, according to the agency’s estimates.

How the Chinese health regulator came up with its estimate for Tuesday is not clear, because the country shut down its once ubiquitous network of PCR testing booths earlier this month. Precise infection rates have been difficult to establish in other countries during the pandemic, as hard-to-get laboratory tests were supplanted by home testing and results were not centrally collected.

The NHC did not respond to a request for comment from Bloomberg News. The commission’s newly founded National Disease Control Bureau, which overseas the Covid response, also did not respond to phone calls and faxes on Friday.

People in China are now using rapid antigen tests to detect infections, and they are not obliged to report positive results. The government, meanwhile, has stopped publishing the daily number of asymptomatic cases.

Chen Qin, chief economist at data consultancy MetroDataTech, forecasts that China’s current wave will peak between mid-December and late January in most cities, based on an analysis of online keyword searches.

His model suggests the reopening is already responsible for tens of millions of infections daily, with the highest case counts in the cities of Shenzhen, Shanghai and Chongqing.

Missing deaths

The minutes of the NHC meeting did not note discussion on how many people have died. They did cite Ma Xiaowei, the head of the commission, reiterating the new, much narrower definition used to count Covid fatalities. While acknowledging that deaths will inevitably occur as the virus spreads rapidly, he underscored that only people who die from Covid-induced pneumonia should be included in the mortality statistics.

Officials said Beijing — which was hit first — is starting to see severe and critical Covid case numbers peak even as its overall infection rate is waning. The outbreak, meanwhile, is spreading from urban centres to rural China, where medical resources are often lacking. The agency warned every region to prepare for the coming surge in severe disease.

The almost 37 million daily cases estimated for Tuesday 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 four million on January 19, 2022, during an initial wave of Omicron infections after the detection of the subvariant in South Africa, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The scale of infection suggested by the official estimates underscores the challenge China faces after it abruptly deviated from the zero-Covid 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 patient numbers, while crematoriums struggle to handle the number of deaths.

Updated: December 23, 2022, 12:54 PM