Almost 1 million people in China may die from Covid-19 as the government rapidly abandons pandemic curbs, according to a new study by researchers in Hong Kong.
In the absence of a mass vaccination booster campaign and other measures to reduce the impact of the virus, some 684 people per million would die in a nationwide reopening, according to the report, which was co-authored by Gabriel Leung, the former dean of medicine at the University of Hong Kong, and two of his colleagues.
That would amount to about 964,400 deaths, based on China’s population of 1.41 billion, according to Bloomberg calculations.
The researchers looked at different scenarios following China’s recent moves, including the Dec. 7 announcement of 10 measures to roll back core Covid Zero principles such as mandatory testing and lockdowns.
“Our results suggest that local health systems across all provinces would be unable to cope with the surge of Covid-19 cases posed by reopening in December 2022–January 2023,” they wrote.
A former undersecretary for food and health, Leung is a well-known figure in Hong Kong. The city’s former leader Carrie Lam has said she tightened Covid restrictions in the city after receiving WhatsApp messages from him.
Members of Leung’s team were part of a group of Hong Kong public health experts who traveled to Beijing in early November to advise Chinese officials about lifting restrictions nationwide, the Financial Times reported Tuesday, citing Leung.
According to the new report, explosive growth of infection rates nationwide could also lead to new variant.
A reopening that sees a high R rate — the basic reproduction number for the virus — would “result in a large number of infections that could potentially accelerate mutation, selection and evolution of SARS-CoV-2 viruses,” the researchers wrote. SARS-CoV-2 is the coronavirus that causes Covid.
It’s no longer possible to determine China’s R rate after the government stopped releasing numbers of new asymptomatic cases. Anecdotal evidence suggests the disease is spreading rapidly, with an eruption of infections already ripping through companies and overwhelming hospitals.
The report was published Wednesday and is a preprint, meaning it hasn’t yet been certified by peer review.