BEIJING, China – Many parts of China are already past their peak of COVID-19 infections, state media reported on Tuesday, January 10, with officials further downplaying the severity of the outbreak despite international concerns about its scale and impact.
A summary by Health Times, a publication managed by People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, said infections have been declining in the capital Beijing and several Chinese provinces. One official was quoted as saying nearly all the 100 million people in Henan province had already been infected.
The virus has been spreading freely in China since a policy U-turn in early December after protests against a “zero-COVID” regime ruthlessly enforced for three years. China reopened its borders on Sunday, removing the last major restrictions.
The frequent lockdowns, relentless testing and various levels of movement curbs since early 2020 have brought the world’s second-largest economy to one of its slowest growth rates in nearly half a century and caused widespread distress.
Global health officials are now trying to get to grips with an outbreak that is filling hospitals and overwhelming some funeral homes, at odds with China's low official virus death toll
With the virus let loose, China has stopped publishing daily infection tallies and has been reporting five or fewer deaths a day since the policy U-turn, figures that have been disputed by the World Health Organization.
Hospitals, funeral homes overwhelmed
Many Chinese funeral homes and hospitals say they are overwhelmed, and international health experts predict at least 1 million COVID-related deaths in China this year.
On Tuesday, a Health Times compilation of reports from local government officials and health experts across the country, suggested the COVID wave may be past its peak in many regions.
Kan Quan, director of the Office of the Henan Provincial Epidemic Prevention and Control, was cited as saying the infection rate in the central province was nearly 90% as of Jan. 6. The number of patients at clinics in the province reached a peak on December 19, but the number of severe cases was still high, he said, without giving further details.
Yin Yong, acting mayor of Beijing, was cited as saying the capital was also past its peak. Li Pan, deputy director of the Municipal Health Commission in the city of Chongqing said the peak there was reached on Dec. 20.
In the province of Jiangsu, the peak was reached on Dec. 22, while in Zheijiang province “the first wave of infections has passed smoothly,” officials said. Two cities in the southern Guangdong province, China’s manufacturing heartland, reached their peaks before the end of the year.
Separately in the state-run China Daily, a prominent health official said the percentage of severe cases remained unclear.
“It is still too early to conclude the overall percentage of severe and critical COVID patients in China as different types of hospitals report different numbers, Wang Guiqiang, head of Peking University First Hospital’s infectious disease department, was quoted as saying.
China has dismissed criticism over its data as politically- motivated attempts to smear its “success” in handling the pandemic and said any future mutations are likely to be more infectious but cause less severe illness.
Testing requirements introduced by several countries, including the United States, Japan, South Korea, Britain, France and others in response to China’s COVID-19 outbreak, were called out by foreign ministry as “discriminatory.”
Financial markets see the new curbs as mere inconvenience, with the yuan hitting a nearly five-month high on Tuesday.
South Korean and Japanese shop owners, Thai tour bus operators, and K-pop groups were among those licking their lips at the prospect of more Chinese tourists.
Although Beijing also demands negative COVID test results from people landing in China, officials have threatened retaliation against countries mandating tests for visitors from China.
The Chinese embassy in South Korea said on Tuesday it will stop issuing short-term visas for Korean citizens.
State media has also taken a swipe at Pfizer Inc over the price for its COVID-19 treatment Paxlovid.
“It is not a secret that US capital forces have already accumulated quite a fortune from the world via selling vaccines and drugs, and the US government has been coordinating all along,” nationalist tabloid Global Times said in an editorial.
Pfizer’s Chief Executive Albert Bourla said on Monday the company was in discussions with Chinese authorities about a price for Paxlovid, but not over licensing a generic version in China.
The abrupt change of course in COVID-19 policies has left China’s health system unprepared, with many hospitals ill-equipped to handle patients in critical conditions and smaller cities scrambling to secure basic anti-fever drug supplies.
Yu Weishi, chairman of Youcare Pharmaceutical Group, told Reuters his firm boosted output of its anti-fever drugs fivefold to one million boxes a day in the past month.
Wang Lili, general manager at another pharmaceutical firm, CR Double Crane, told Reuters intravenous drips were their most in-demand product.
The company has since January 5 done away with weekends to meet demand.
“We are running 24/7,” Wang said.