China estimates COVID-19 surge is infecting 37 million people a day

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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, or nearly 18 percent of the population, likely contracted the virus in the first 20 days of December, according to minutes from an internal meeting of China’s National Health Commission held on Wednesday, confirmed with people involved in the discussions. If accurate, the infection rate would dwarf the previous daily record of about 4 million, set in January 2022.

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Beijing’s swift dismantling of COVID-zero 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 southwest, and the capital Beijing have been infected, according to the agency’s estimates.

How the Chinese health regulator came up with its estimate is unclear, as 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 with results that weren’t centrally collected.

The NHC didn’t respond to a request for comment faxed by Bloomberg News. The commission’s newly founded National Disease Control Bureau, which oversees the COVID-19 response, also didn’t respond to phone calls and faxes on Friday.

People in China are now using rapid antigen tests to detect infections, and they aren’t obligated to report positive results. Meanwhile, the government has stopped publishing the daily number of asymptomatic cases.

Chen Qin, chief economist at data consultancy MetroDataTech, forecasts 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 surge is already responsible for tens of millions of infections daily, with the largest case counts in the cities of Shenzhen, Shanghai and Chongqing.

Missing deaths

The minutes of the meeting didn’t note discussion on how many people have died. They did cite Ma Xiaowei, the head of the NHC, reiterating the new, much narrower definition used to count COVID-19 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-19 cases peak even as its overall infection rate is waning. Meanwhile, the outbreak is spreading from urban centers to rural China, where medical resources are often lacking. The agency warned every region to prepare for the coming surge in severe disease.

The 37 million daily cases estimated for December 20 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 4 million on January 19, 2022, amid an initial wave of omicron infections following its emergence 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 pivoted from the COVID-zero 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 patients, while crematoriums struggle to handle the onslaught of deaths.

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