China could see more than 600,000 Covid cases daily if it mimics anti-pandemic strategies implemented in the US, lifts travel bans, or drops its “zero-tolerance” approach against the virus, new research by Peking University experts said.
In the study, published last week by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control’s (CDC) weekly, four researchers have warned of a “colossal outbreak”, which would put an “unaffordable burden” on the country’s health system if Beijing moved away from its current anti-Covid strategies.
“More efficient vaccinations or more specific treatment, preferably the combination of both, are needed before entry-exit quarantine measures and other Covid response strategies in China can be safely lifted,” the study said.
“The estimates revealed the real possibility of a colossal outbreak which would almost certainly put an unbearable burden on the medical system,” the study added.
The research paper, titled On Coexistence with Covid-19: Estimations and Perspectives, compared China’s anti-epidemic measures with that of five other countries: the US, UK, Israel, Spain and France.
Despite local and even inter-provincial outbreaks in recent months, China has been able to control the spread of the coronavirus within the country since it first emerged from the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.
There were 98,631 total confirmed Covid cases on mainland China as of Saturday, while the death toll stood at 4,636.
Brushing aside criticism against the policy being “unsustainable”, China has continued to implement the “zero-Covid” policy through strict lockdowns for even a handful of cases, efficient contact tracing, hard quarantine measures, and controlled or closed international borders.
It also involves large-scale nucleic acid testing, and strict travel and health code management.
The new study concluded that the current policies would have to continue in China to prevent any new explosive outbreak of the disease. The study used data for August from the five countries with the researchers looking at the potential results if China adopted similar pandemic response strategies.
The study estimated that China would have 637,155 if it implements the same strategies as the US; 454,198 in the case of France; and 275,793 in the case of UK.
The research said four tenets for the safe transition from elimination strategies to open-up strategies were needed: Retain flexible non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), maximise vaccination coverage, shield industries and vulnerable groups from the unintended consequences resulting from NPIs, and detect and isolate Covid promptly using extensive surveillance and stronger community social responsibility.
“However, due to the large population and relatively scarce health resources per capita in China, it is difficult to fully achieve tenets 1, 3, and 4, especially during a large-scale outbreak; therefore, China needs to be cautious about the decision on the open-up.”
The study raised a “clear warning that, for the time being, we are not ready to embrace ‘open-up’ strategies resting solely on the hypothesis of herd immunity induced by vaccination advocated by certain western countries”.
Separately, Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese CDC said on Sunday that without the zero-tolerance policy and prevention of overseas importation, there would have been “47.84 million infections and 950,000 deaths based on global pathogenicity and mortality rates”.
Wu added that China’s Covid prevention policies were similar to the other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries, the country could have logged 54.97 million infections and over 1.14 million deaths.
Wu was speaking at Caijing magazine’s annual forecasts and strategies conference in Beijing on Sunday.
Wu said that “mathematical models show that Omicron is more contagious than Delta…but it’s clear that whatever the mutation, our public health measures are effective. Public health measures like wearing masks and social distancing are effective against all mutated strains”.
“The prevailing strains this winter and next spring are mainly the Delta strain. Whether the South African variant strain Omicron can develop into the dominant strain needs further observation,” Wu was quoted as saying by Chinese state media.