China faces new Covid wave of XBB variant that could peak at 65 million cases per week
BEIJING — China is bracing for a new wave of Covid-19 infections that could see up to 65 million cases per week by the time the outbreak peaks in late June.
It’s a startling prediction in a country that only a few months ago had implemented some of the toughest Covid control protocols on the planet. Now, with the latest omicron variant, XBB, fueling an upsurge in cases, the response from the Chinese government and public is muted at best.
The push comes about six months after Beijing dismantled its sprawling infrastructure to deal with Covid here, including harsh lockdowns, mass testing, stifling quarantines and strict mask requirements.
“People have a different opinion of this wave,” said Qi Zhang, 30, who works at a financial company in the northern city of Tianjin. “Last time everyone was terrified, but now they don’t think it’s serious,” she told NBC News on Thursday.
The 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, Zhong told the public that the surge that began in late April was “anticipated” and that his modeling suggested China could be approaching 40 million infections per 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 per week at its peak in January 2022. Like the United States, China stopped providing weekly case updates this month, this which makes 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 travel restrictions were being considered. Spokesman Matt Miller said the department would monitor the situation in conjunction 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 U.S. government remains committed to working with [China] on transnational challenges, including on global health issues and keeping lines of communication open.
During the first wave of Covid in China in December and January, a different variant of omicron was infecting millions of people every day, overwhelming hospitals and crematoriums in cities across the country. Store shelves were emptied of fever medication and schools were closed.
About 80% of China’s 1.4 billion people were infected during this wave, Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control, said in January. But immunity may have waned in the months that followed, increasing the risk of reinfection.
Zhong told the medical conference that the government has given preliminary approval to two vaccines for the XBB subvariants, which are already circulating in the United States, and more may soon be approved.
Joey Wang, 24, a student in Hebei province, said many people found Covid symptoms less severe this time around. But public fears also appear to have been allayed by the government’s change in messaging.
“No more media trying to terrify the public, no more short ‘fight the pandemic’ type videos to alert people, and no more drastic measures like lockdowns,” he said.
The moderate response from the Chinese government comes as it tries to revive the economy and reassure U.S. and foreign businesses, which would react negatively to the return of restrictions.
“The application of Covid-zero has been very disruptive to business,” said Michael Hart, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, “and so we have told the Chinese government over and over again what businesses have need is stability, clarity, so they can plan.”
Zhang, the finance clerk, said co-workers who recently tested positive were choosing to come to work anyway, in contrast to the first wave when everyone was spending long periods working from home.
“When I think back to such strict Covid measures, it feels like a dream,” she said. “It makes me doubt that all these strict lockdowns were right if we ended up here anyway.”
Janis Mackey Frayer reported from Beijing and Jennifer Jett reported from Hong Kong.
Dawn Liu, Jace Zhang And Abigail Williams contributed.