Tonhere it is Many predictions about the speed of the spread of covid-19 in China. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation believes cases will peak on April 1. It said in December that a third of the country’s 1.4 billion people would have been infected by then. London-based data firm Airfinity said the peak will come on January 13, with a second on March 3. It predicted 223 million people would be infected by May. economistIts own modeling suggests that if the virus spreads unchecked, the outbreak will be at its worst in early January, infecting 75% of the population.
A lack of good data makes it difficult to assess these projections. But statistics, anecdotal evidence and unconventional indicators suggest that the virus may have swept through large swaths of China.
The idea that the authorities are pushing for an outbreak is fading. The National Health Commission said on Jan. 14 that the number of fever clinic visits peaked on Dec. 23 at about 2.9 million and has since dropped by more than 80%. The number of patients with severe COVID-19 symptoms peaked after two weeks. A study by Peking University estimated that by January 11, 900 million people in China had been infected with the new coronavirus. Possibly worried about losing control of the narrative, the government quickly removed reports and social media posts about the study from the internet.
Many observers had feared that the travel rush around the Chinese New Year, which began on January 22, would bring the virus from cities to remote areas. But the virus appears to have reached many of them. When our teahouse columnist visited Weiji village in Henan province earlier this month, a doctor told him that 90 percent of the people there had been infected with the coronavirus.An article dated January 9 farmers dailyA state-run newspaper reported on feverish people working in rural Shandong province. Viruses are there too.
A good predictor of case numbers early in the pandemic in the US is a Google search for loss of taste or smell (a symptom of an early variant).so economist Scrape data from China’s search giant Baidu to see if they hold clues about the outbreak in the country. On December 12, searches for “Lianhua Qingwen”, an herbal medicine used to treat COVID-19 (with doubtful efficacy), peaked (see chart). Five days later, searches for “fever” peaked. Searches for “shortness of breath,” a lingering symptom of severe COVID-19, peaked on Dec. 27.
To be sure, it’s a blurry picture. The least clear is the number of covid deaths. China claims that around 60,000 people died from the virus between Dec. 8, the day after most covid controls were lifted, and Jan. 12. The actual number is much higher because the official death toll refers only to those who died in healthcare facilities — and doctors discourage citing COVID-19 on death certificates. Our models suggest the covid death toll could exceed 1 million.
Even if infections in China have peaked, things could still get worse. Subsequent waves of the virus have killed more people than the first in countries such as the US and the UK. The Chinese government probably hopes that most people will develop some degree of natural immunity, thereby mitigating the effects of a second wave. Another approach is to vaccinate more people. ■
Subscribers can sign up to our new weekly newsletter, The Drum Tower, to learn how the world shapes China — and how China shapes the world. All of our stories related to the pandemic can be found in our Coronavirus Hub.