As respiratory disease specialist Zhong Nanshan revealed at a medical conference this week in Guangzhou, China should be bracing for another massive Covid wave that already started in late April. This latest outbreak of Covid-19 is driven by the XBB Omicron sub-variants, and may peak at 65 million infections per week by the end of June.
Although experts estimate that, during the country’s previous Omicron wave in January and February, about 80 percent of China’s population was infected, immunity may have waned in the months since, increasing the risk of reinfection.
While for most of the pandemic China had probably the most stringent restrictions in the world – including harsh lockdowns, stifling quarantines, mass testing, and strict mask requirements – the country dismantled its sprawling infrastructure for dealing with Covid six months ago. This allowed the Omicron variant to infect millions of people each day, overwhelming hospitals and crematoriums in various cities.
Although the new wave is expected to have a less dramatic impact on public health, older people and individuals with underlying diseases are still relatively under-vaccinated and thus at high risk of developing severe disease.
“But the number is smaller and so the good thing is that the hospitals then can take care of them in a better way,” said Jin Dong-yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong. Moreover, the government had already approved two vaccines aimed at the XBB subvariants and several others could be approved soon.
In the case of the general population, people usually report less severe Covid symptoms this time, and public fears have also been eased by changes in government messaging.
“No more media coming out trying to terrify the public, no more ‘fight the pandemic’ type of short videos to alert people, and no more hardcore measures like the lockdown,” said Joey Wang, a 24-year-old student in the Hubei province.
The subdued response of the government comes as an attempt to revive the economy and reassure U.S. and other foreign businesses.
“Covid-zero enforcement was very interruptive to business, and so we said again and again to the Chinese government, what companies need is stability, clarity, so they can plan,” said Michael Hart, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China.
It is not yet clear whether U.S. will reimpose travel restrictions in the near future, as China’s new wave grows, although experts suggest that U.S. citizens already have a high level of immunity to the XBB sub-variants circulating now in China. According to Matt Miller, a spokesperson at the State Department, the situation in China will be closely monitored in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) before updating current travel guidelines.
“We don’t want to see people anywhere, obviously, suffering from Covid-19,” Miller said. However, the U.S. government remains committed to collaborate with China “on transnational challenges, including on global health matters and maintaining open lines of communication.”