BEIJING — China is bracing for a new wave of Covid infections that could hit 65 million cases a week by the time the surge peaks in late June.
It is a startling prediction in a country, where the pandemic originated at the end of 2019, which only a few months ago had applied some of the strictest covid control protocols on the planet. Now, with the latest omicron variant, XBB, fueling a resurgence of cases, the response from China’s government and the public is muted at best.
The surge comes some six months after the country dismantled its sprawling infrastructure to deal with Covid, including severe lockdowns, mass testing, sweltering quarantines and strict mask requirements.
«People feel differently about this wave,» said Qi Zhang, 30, who works at a finance company in the northern city of Tianjin. «Last time, everyone was terrified, but now they don’t think it’s a big deal,» she told NBC News on Thursday.
The new wave data was revealed by respiratory disease specialist Zhong Nanshan at a medical conference this week in the southern city of Guangzhou. According to state media, he told the audience that the wave that began in late April was «anticipated» and that his model suggested China may be approaching 40 million infections a week. By the end of June, he said, the weekly number of infections will peak at 65 million.
The United States, by comparison, was reporting more than 5 million cases a week at its peak last January. Like the US, China stopped providing weekly case updates this month, making it difficult to know the true extent of the current outbreak.
The State Department said the United States, which imposed a testing requirement on travelers from China in January before lifting it in March, was discussing China’s second wave of Covid with allies and partners but declined to say whether they were discussing it. considering travel restrictions. Spokesman Matt Miller said the department would monitor the situation along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before updating travel guidelines.
“We don’t want to see people anywhere, obviously, suffering from covid-19,” Miller said Wednesday. The US government remains committed to working with China «on transnational challenges, including global health issues, and maintaining open lines of communication,» she added.
Various versions of omicron sub-variants, including XBB 1.5, XBB.1.16 aka «Arcturus», and XBB.1.9.1, have been circulating in the US since December and make up almost all current infections in the country. Although the CDC does not regularly track new cases and most new infections are likely undercounted, hospitalizations and deaths continue to decline in the US.
Experts suggest that the US already has a strong level of immunity against the highly transmissible form of the virus.
During China’s first wave of omicrons in December and January, a different variant of omicrons was infecting millions of people every day, overwhelming hospitals and crematoriums in cities across the country. Store shelves were emptied of fever medicine and schools closed.
About 80% of China’s 1.4 billion people were infected during that wave, Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in January. But immunity may have waned in the months afterward, increasing the risk of reinfection.
Zhong told the medical conference that the government had given preliminary approval to two vaccines targeting the XBB subvariants and others could be approved soon.
Although China’s current wave will not match the «tsunami» of cases it experienced in December and January, older people and those with underlying diseases are still relatively undervaccinated and at high risk of developing severe illness, Jin Dong-said. yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong.
«But the number is smaller and so the good thing is that the hospitals can treat them in a better way,» he said.
Joey Wang, 24, a student from Hebei province, said many people were finding the Covid symptoms less severe this time around. But public fears also appear to have eased with the change in government messaging.
“No more media trying to terrorize the public, no more short ‘fight the pandemic’ type videos to alert people, and no more harsh measures like lockdowns,” he said.
The dovish response from the Chinese government comes as it tries to revive the economy and reassure US and foreign companies, which would react negatively to a return of restrictions.
“Covid-zeroing has disrupted business a lot,” said Michael Hart, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, “and so we said over and over again to the Chinese government, what businesses need is stability, clarity , so they can plan.»
Zhang, the finance clerk, said colleagues who recently tested positive chose to come to work anyway, in contrast to the first wave, when everyone spent long stretches working from home.
“When I look back at such strict Covid measures, it feels like a dream,” he said. “It makes me wonder if all those strict lockdowns were right if we ended up here anyway.”
Janis Mackey Frayer reported from Beijing and Jennifer Jett from Hong Kong.