China’s top health authority estimates that 37 million people were infected with Covid-19 on a single day this week, making this the world’s biggest outbreak.
Almost 18% of China’s population likely contracted the virus in the first 20 days of December. This is according to minutes from a meeting of the National Health Commission held on Wednesday. This would dwarf the previous daily record of about 4 million, set in January 2022.
Beijing’s swift dismantling of Covid Zero restrictions has led to the unfettered spread of highly contagious omicron variants in a population with low immunity. According to the agency, more than half of Sichuan province’s residents and Beijing’s residents have been infected.
As the country shut down its once ubiquitous network of PCR testing booths earlier this month, it’s unclear how the regulator came up with its estimate. It’s been difficult to get precise infection rates in other countries because hard-to-get laboratory tests were replaced by home tests with results that weren’t centralized.
Bloomberg News faxed a request for comment but the NHC didn’t respond. On Friday, the National Disease Control Bureau, which oversees the COVID response, didn’t answer the phone or fax.
China now uses rapid antigen tests to detect infections, and they don’t have to report positive results. Meanwhile, the government has stopped publishing asymptomatic cases every day.
Based on online keyword searches, Chen Qin, chief economist at MetroDataTech, predicts China’s current wave will peak between mid-December and late January. According to his model, the reopening surge is already causing tens of millions of infections a day, mostly in Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Chongqing.
Deaths that were unreported
Minutes didn’t mention how many people died. Ma Xiaowei, the NHC’s head, reaffirmed the revised, much narrower definition used to count Covid deaths. He acknowledged that deaths will inevitably happen as the virus spreads, but only people who die from Covid-induced pneumonia should be counted.
Beijing, which was hit first, is starting to see severe and critical Covid casespeak as its overall infection rate declines. Meanwhile, the outbreak is spreading from urban centers to rural China, where medical resources are scarce. Every region should prepare for an outbreak.
The 37 million cases estimated for December 20 are way up from the 3,049 infections reported in China that day. It’s also several times higher than the previous pandemic record. Global cases of Omicron reached an all-time high of 4 million on Jan. 19, 2022, following its emergence in South Africa.
Infection levels suggested by the official estimates underscore China’s challenge after abruptly quitting Covid Zero, which kept the virus at bay for three years. Major Chinese cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, have been overwhelmed with patients, while crematoriums are struggling to cope.
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