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Online search data sheds light on China’s latest covid wave

noone outside China knows how many people in the country have been infected with covid-19 or died from the virus in recent weeks. The Chinese government, which recently abandoned its “zero coronavirus” strategy of strict lockdown and quarantine requirements that it has maintained since the start of the pandemic, may be modeling the outbreak but has not shared its estimates. It has reported an official death toll of just nine since Dec. 1. On December 25, the National Health Commission announced that it would stop publishing daily case counts (although the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention will continue to release some information about the outbreak). Mortuaries and crematoria are reportedly struggling to keep up with the surge in dead bodies. Some reports put the number of infections this month in the hundreds of millions (out of a population of 1.4 billion).

Given this uncertainty, outside observers seeking to estimate the size of the current outbreak in China must rely on crude proxy indicators. One such source of data is Internet search engines, which people can use to look up disease symptoms and treatments. While people often search for information about stories that take place outside their own country, specific terms that indicate someone may have been directly affected can be surprisingly informative about local conditions.

In the US, for example, a prominent predictor of case numbers early in the pandemic was Google searches for loss of taste or smell. Once covid testing became widely available in the US, the daily changes in the number of such searches almost synchronized with the changes in the number of reported cases 8 or 9 days later. The biggest spike in search interest for anosmia came in March 2020, when the disease first hit the U.S., but tests were few and far between.

These exact search terms have lost a lot of their relevance.Because the various descendants of the Omicron variant SARS-CoV-2, now the dominant strain, affects taste and smell much less than earlier versions of the virus, and the correlation between online interest in anosmia and official covid case numbers has weakened. However, researchers can still use this method with other words, although the results may be less precise.

The government may have underestimated the toll since covid first emerged in China in late 2019. Between 20 January and 20 April 2020, 4,684 deaths from the disease were reported, and only 558 have been recorded since then. While this figure is likely too low, the magnitude of the underestimation is fraught with uncertainty. Official statistics do not provide any way to determine whether China is indeed experiencing an outbreak of unprecedented scale.

However, data from Baidu, China’s leading search engine, strongly suggests that the country’s current surge in COVID-19 cases dwarfs any previous gains. Maximum daily search frequency for “antigen” (a term often included in rapid COVID-19 test searches) and “fever reducer” (a family of fever reducers that includes aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen) in mid-December They were 60 and 37 times respectively, 14 times and 13 times the average levels in September and October.

That interest may come at least in part from people who don’t currently have the virus but want to stockpile tests and medicines. However, Baidu’s focus on “fever” and “blood oxygen” also saw significant growth, with increases of 32 times and 19 times compared to the average levels in September and October, and increases compared to previous records 8 times. Another term showing rapid growth is “Lianhua Qingwen”, a herbal mixture commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat flu. It has seen a 40x increase in searches compared to the September-October average and a 5x increase from its peak during the first wave of the pandemic in early 2020. People who are interested in news but are not currently infected may be more likely to search – a smaller increase from previous highs.

Interest in some of these terms has waned in recent days. On December 26, the search volumes for “antipyretics”, “antigens”, “fever” and “Lianhua Qingwen” were 26%, 31%, 32% and 39% of the peak values ​​from December 14 to 17, respectively. %. However, other words, such as “blood oxygen” and simply “covid,” hit record highs these days.

Cases in China seem unlikely to peak. Even if they have, it may be a temporary respite: most other countries have experienced numerous covid waves with false lulls in between. Furthermore, any decline in the number of infections may be due not to successful containment of the outbreak but to “exhaustion of susceptible populations”—in other words, there are no new people for the current strain to infect because it has spread to a lot of.

Entering December, Baidu’s search volume for “funeral services” remained within the range before the outbreak. But COVID-19 typically takes two to three weeks for symptoms to appear, taking the lives of victims. Searches for the term have quadrupled in the past week and are 64% higher than their previous maximum. At this rate of growth, the last week of 2022 could be the deadliest week in China.

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.

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