Beijing expects COVID surge as mutation risks concern experts

Hospitals should expand ICU beds as a priority, with COVID peak expected to last until end of January, respiratory expert says.

Beijing faces a surge in severe COVID-19 cases over the next two weeks, a respiratory expert in China has said, amid global concerns over possible mutations and knock-on effects for the world economy after the recent surprise lifting of China’s strict zero-COVID policies.

The easing of restrictions across China has coincided with a jump in infections experts say will likely gather pace through the winter, with some projections even suggesting China could face more than a million deaths next year, the Reuters news agency has reported.

“We must act quickly and prepare fever clinics, emergency and severe treatment resources,” Wang Guangfa, a respiratory expert from Peking University First Hospital, told the country’s state-run Global Times on Tuesday.

Wang said hospitals should expand ICU beds as a priority and that the COVID-19 peak will likely last until the end of China’s Spring Festival, which will fall on January 22.

COVID-19 cases will then fall off and life should gradually return to normal around the end of February and the beginning of March, Wang said.

After the peak, people must not let their guard down, Wang added, describing the “dire consequences” if the virus were again to transfer between humans and animals.

“The current COVID-19 strain may be less virulent, but it may not go the same way on animals. Maybe it seems less severe for animals but at some point, the virus can still jump to humans, with dire consequences,” Wang said.

Following widespread protests in China earlier this month, the country of 1.4bn people started dismantling its “zero-COVID” lockdowns and testing, which had largely kept the virus away for three years at great economic and psychological costs.

Narrow definition of COVID-19 deaths

China, which uses a narrow definition of what can be classified as COVID fatalities, reported no new COVID deaths for December 20, compared with five the previous day.

The nation’s overall fatalities since the pandemic began were revised to 5,241 after removing one death in Beijing.

Amid doubts over China’s very low COVID death toll by global standards, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) on Tuesday clarified that only deaths caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure after contracting the virus are classified as COVID deaths.

A heart attack or cardiovascular disease causing death in an infected person will not get that classification.

Benjamin Mazer, an assistant professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins University, said China’s classification system would miss “a lot of cases”, especially as people who are vaccinated, including with the Chinese shots, are less likely to die of pneumonia.

Blood clots and sepsis – an extreme response to infection – have caused countless deaths among COVID patients around the world.

“It doesn’t make sense to apply this sort of March 2020 mindset where it’s only COVID pneumonia that can kill you, when we know that in the post-vaccine era, there’s all sorts of medical complications,” Mazer said.

The NHC also played down concerns raised by the United States and some epidemiologists over the potential for the virus to mutate in China, saying the possibility of new strains that are more pathogenic is low.

Several leading scientists and World Health Organization advisors said it may be too early to declare the end of the global COVID pandemic emergency phase because of a potentially devastating wave to come in China.

The US said on Tuesday that it stands ready to assist China with its outbreak, warning an uncontrolled spread in the world’s second-largest economy may have implications for global growth.

The full effects of ditching “zero-COVID” remain highly uncertain given China’s patchy vaccine coverage, fragile health system and lack of clarity about the real extent of infections as cases start to surge.

Some hospitals in China have already become inundated with patients and some cities are dealing with medicine and blood shortages as pharmacy shelves are stripped bare and crematoriums are overwhelmed in the wake of the lift of years of lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing.

From the country’s northeast to its southwest, crematorium workers have told Agence France-Presse that they are struggling to keep up with a surge in deaths.

Beijing last week admitted the scale of the outbreak has become “impossible” to track following the end of mandatory mass testing.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies