China says critical COVID cases have peaked as holiday travel increases

  • Millions travel across the country for the Lunar New Year
  • President Xi says he is concerned about older rural areas
  • Daily deaths could hit 36,000 next week, analysis shows
  • Chinese drug manufacturers are rushing to make fever medicines

BEIJING, Jan. 19 (Reuters) – The number of COVID patients requiring critical care in China’s hospitals has peaked, health authorities said on Thursday, as millions traveled the country for long-awaited family reunions, raising fears of new outbreaks .

There has been widespread skepticism about China’s official COVID data since it abruptly scrapped anti-virus controls last month that had protected China’s 1.4 billion people from the disease for three years.

China said on Saturday that between December 8 and January 12, nearly 60,000 people with COVID had died in hospitals — a roughly 10-fold increase from previous revelations.

However, that number excludes those who die at home, and some doctors in China have said they are discouraged from putting COVID on death certificates.

As travel picks up again during the busy Lunar New Year holiday season, as many as 36,000 people could die from the disease every day, according to the latest forecasts from UK-based health data company Airfinity. Other experts predict that more than 1 million will die from the disease this year.

But a National Health Commission official told a news conference on Thursday that China has weathered the peak period of COVID patients in fever clinics, emergency rooms and with critical conditions.

The number of patients with critical illnesses hospitalized on Jan. 17 was more than 40% lower than a peak on Jan. 5, an official said.

The new data comes after President Xi Jinping expressed concern that rural areas were ill-equipped to deal with a wave of infections as holidays, which officially begin on January 21, return crowds of urban residents to their hometowns.

Before COVID first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, the holiday season was known as the largest annual migration of people anywhere in the world.

“China’s COVID prevention and control is still in a time of stress, but the light is coming, perseverance is victory,” Xi said in a holiday message from state broadcaster CCTV on Wednesday.

“I am most concerned about the rural areas and the farmers. Medical facilities are relatively weak in rural areas, so prevention is difficult and the task is tough,” Xi said, adding that the elderly were a top priority.

China’s chaotic exit from a regime of massive lockdowns, travel restrictions and massive COVID testing has also sparked a drug run as people fight the disease for themselves.

To meet rising demand, drugmakers in China are scrambling to triple their capacity to make key fever and cough medicines, the state-run China Daily reported Thursday.

China has so far relied on domestic vaccines to fight the pandemic, avoiding foreign-made vaccines, which some studies have suggested are more effective, while other foreign treatments for COVID-19 have been difficult to obtain in China.

Pfizer’s (PFE.N) COVID-19 antiviral drug Paxlovid is available in China, but is very difficult to obtain through official channels, according to media reports and personal accounts. Merck & Co’s (MRK.N) antiviral treatment molnupiravir is also approved for use, but is not yet widely available.

Stephane Bancel, CEO of Moderna (MRNA.O), told Reuters on Wednesday that the US company was in active talks to supply COVID-19 vaccines to China.

At a meeting this week, China’s National Medical Products Administration pledged to stabilize prices of COVID-related drugs and crack down on the sale of counterfeit products.

‘SIGNIFICANT BURDEN’

Airfinity estimated on Wednesday that 62 million people could be infected with the virus between January 13 and January 27 and that COVID-related daily deaths could peak at 36,000 on January 26, a sharp increase from previous forecasts.

“Our forecast estimates a significant burden on China’s healthcare system over the next two weeks and it is likely that many treatable patients will die due to overcrowded hospitals and lack of care,” said Matt Linley, Airfinity’s director of analytics.

Looking beyond the death toll, there is optimism that China’s reopening will revitalize a $17 trillion economy suffering from one of the lowest growth rates in nearly half a century.

Owners and managers of Chinese factories, which make nearly a third of the world’s manufactured goods, are hoping to return to normal after years of virus restrictions and a recent spate of infections that have disrupted business.

China could see a sharp recovery from the second quarter, IMF deputy general manager Gita Gopinath told Reuters at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday.

That hope has pushed China’s major stock markets and the yuan to multi-month highs in recent sessions.

China-controlled Hong Kong, which is trying to revive its financial and trade-dependent economy, said on Thursday that people with COVID-19 would not be quarantined from Jan. 30, lifting one of its last major virus restrictions.

Reporting by Bernard Orr, Martin Quin Pollard and the Beijing newsroom; Written by John Geddie; Edited by Neil Fullick and Tomasz Janowski

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Principles of Trust.

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