China’s explosive Covid wave may spark ‘deadly’ variant

China: Shocking footage shows bodies in hospitals

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Experts have warned the fresh Covid wave currently ripping through China could threaten to trigger a “more contagious, more deadly” new variant which could spread across the globe. After Chinese President Xi Jinping lifted his controversial “Zero Covid” restrictions following a mass wave of protests, Covid cases in China have appeared to skyrocket, with reports emerging of bodies =piling up in morgues while experts warn millions of deaths are on the way. 

Wang Guangfa, a respiratory expert from Peking University First Hospital, told China’s state-owned outlet Global Times in China the next two weeks could be particularly tough, urging immediate action to prepare fever clinics, emergency and severe treatment resources. 

However, he claimed COVID-19 cases will then fall off and life should slowly return to normal around the end of February and the beginning of March. But not all experts are as optimistic. 

Daniel Lucey, a fellow at the Infectious Diseases Society of America and professor at Dartmouth University’s Geisel School of Medicine, told Bloomberg: “It could be more contagious, more deadly, or evade drugs, vaccines and detection from existing diagnostics.”

She likened a potential new strain to what was seen with the delta version of the virus, which devastated India in late 2020 and infected millions of people over a short space of time, with the lethal strain spreading rapidly across the world. 

Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 technical lead, said: “This will bite us. We need to have some eyes around the world on this.”

According to Xu Wenbo, director at the National Institute for Viral Disease Control and Prevention, China is closely monitoring Omicron subvariants that are currently circulating in the country. 

He noted it has set up a national Covid viral sequencing database, which will get access to genetic sequences from three hospitals in each province every week to catch any emerging variants. 

Earlier this month, Dr Stephen Griffin, an associate professor at Leeds University, told that new omicron subvariants are “more capable of evading antibody responses” meaning “only very recently boosted people might be expected to avoid infection, or reinfection”. 

Warning over the UK’s booster programme, he said: “This is important because many of us will not have had a vaccine for some time now, meaning that antibody levels in the blood have naturally declined. The booster programme targeted at the elderly and clinically vulnerable has sadly faltered for the age groups under 70 in particular – only around half of 50-59-year-olds have taken up this offer.

There is little clarity now about infections and deaths in China, after the country largely abandoned its mass testing regime and narrowed the way it measures Covid mortality. 

China claims over 90 percent of its population has been fully vaccinated. But under half of its citizens over the age of 80 have received three vaccine doses. This could also be a concern as older age is directly linked to severe Covid symptoms.

It is difficult to establish the true number of current cases and deaths in China at present as it largely abandoned its mass testing regime and narrowed the way it measures Covid mortality. 

And on Tuesday, Beijing also narrowed its definition of Covid deaths, which will experts warned will massively slash its death statistics. Despite the widespread reports and images of overwhelmed crematoriums and queues of hearses, the country recorded no new fatalities in its latest Covid statistics update on Wednesday. 

Prof Wang Guiqiang told a State Council news conference that the country’s National Health Commission changed its guidelines to “scientifically and objectively reflect deaths caused by the coronavirus pandemic”, only classing fatalities caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure in patients who had the illness as coronavirus deaths.

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Dr Wang said: “At present, after being infected with the Omicron variant, the main cause of death remains underlying diseases. Old people have other underlying conditions, only a very small number die directory of respiratory failure caused by infection with Covid.”

But, Dr Yanzhong Huang, a health expert who sits on the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City, said that will mean a vast number of Covid deaths will go unrecorded. He told AFP: “The definition that focuses on respiratory failure — which develops when the lungs can’t get enough oxygen into the blood — will miss a large number of Covid deaths.

“The new definition is a reversal of the international norm adopted since mid-April during the Shanghai outbreak, which counts a Covid death as anyone who died with Covid.”

World Health Organisation Director-General and public health expert Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a press conference earlier today he is “very concerned” about the emerging situation in China. 

He said: “WHO is very concerned over the evolving situation in China, with increasing reports of severe disease…WHO is supporting China to focus its efforts on vaccinating people at the highest risk across the country. We continue to offer our support for clinical care and protecting its health system.”

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