Data implications of China ending its zero-COVID policies

As China rolls back on COVID-19 safety measures, its rising case load is likely to shoot up further. Chart from Our World in Data.

China has rolled back some of its most rigorous COVID-19 safety policies, essentially moving away from its “zero COVID” strategy, following recent protests. I am no expert on China’s political or health policies here, but I did want to share some reflections on what this rollback could mean for global COVID-19 data, citing from Katherine Wu’s recent story in The Atlantic.

First of all, it’s important to note that we don’t have much information about coronavirus variants circulating in China. According to the global database GISAID, China has submitted a total of just 667 Omicron sequences—compared to nearly two million from the U.S. The country’s most recent sample was submitted on November 29, almost two weeks ago. Some reports, like this one in the Global Times, suggest that Omicron BF.7 is the dominant variant in Beijing, but the pattern could be different in other parts of the country.

Without more data, it’s hard to say for sure. And this is concerning because, if a new variant evolves in China as the virus spreads more widely there in the coming weeks, it could take more time for the rest of the world to learn about it than if a new variant emerged in other countries. Quick responses and international collaboration have been crucial in responses to new variants over the last two years; the global scientific community needs to be prepared to study and adapt to any new variant that might come out of China.

At the same time, China’s case data are going to become less reliable as the country reduces its clinical testing. Daily case numbers have already appeared to drop, per Our World in Data, but this could be a product of less testing for asymptomatic people (and/or data delays) rather than a surge actually turning around. I also noted that Our World in Data does not have any testing numbers for China more recent than April 2022.

China is already more limited at sharing COVID-19 data than other countries. But if case numbers become less reliable, it will get harder for international health experts to keep tabs on how bad China’s surge is getting. And it could get very bad: one modeling analysis, published in Nature in May, found that an unchecked Omicron wave in the country could lead to demand for intensive care units at 15.6 times the country’s current capacity—and 1.55 million deaths.

Based on its current healthcare system, China is not prepared for a massive national surge of severe COVID-19 cases. It’s probably even less prepared for the massive surge of Long COVID cases that could follow. This has implications for global health, economics, and more.

From the last paragraph of Wu’s great article:

Even without a spike in severe disease, a wide-ranging outbreak is likely to put immense strain on China—which may weigh heavily on its economy and residents for years to come. After the SARS outbreak that began in 2002, rates of burnout and post-traumatic stress among health-care workers in affected countries swelled. Chinese citizens have not experienced an epidemic of this scale in recent memory, Chen told me. “A lot of people think it is over, that they can go back to their normal lives.” But once SARS-CoV-2 embeds itself in the country, it won’t be apt to leave. There will not be any going back to normal, not after this.

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