China’s announcement that it had almost 60,000 Covid-related deaths in a month has spurred new calls for the government to provide more data about the wave of infections that is sweeping the country.

The country’s National Health Commission said on Saturday that 59,938 people died at hospitals from Covid-related causes between December 8 and January 12. The World Health Organization said it is analysing the latest data but urged China to share more detailed information, including on sub-variants circulating throughout the nation. 

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reiterated the importance of China’s deeper cooperation and transparency in talks with NHC Director Ma Xiaowei, according to a statement on Saturday.

“A more timely, open and transparent sharing of Covid statistics with the Chinese people and the rest of the world is long overdue,” said Jin Dong-yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong. 

Narrow definition

The virus has been spreading at a faster pace in China after the government relaxed controls in November and abruptly abandoned its Covid Zero policy in December.

It has become difficult since then to gauge the impact of the change, as authorities stopped frequent release of data and mostly adopted a narrower definition of a Covid fatality — only those who die from respiratory failure caused by the virus.

Reports on social media of surging deaths across parts of the country suggest the actual number of deaths resulting from infection may be far higher.

An analysis from economists at Barclays in December predicted China’s fatality rate from an omicron wave would be about 0.4 per cent among the unvaccinated and 0.02 per cent among the fully vaccinated. That would indicate Covid-related deaths during the current wave in China’s 1.4 billion population ultimately may be many times higher than the 60,000 so far reported.

A study published Friday in Nature Medicine said that 76 per cent of Beijing’s 22 million population were probably infected with the virus by December 22 and that figure would rise to 92 per cent by the end of January. It said the reproductive rate — how many people on average one person with the virus infects — increased to 3.44 following the policy shifts. 

Hong Kong University’s Jin said, in addition to the number of deaths of patients admitted to hospitals, China should provide the total number of Covid-related deaths, including those who died from worsening of underlying diseases. It should also give the infection rate in the general population and among elderly people, as well as hospital and ICU admission and occupancy rates. 

The average age among the deaths reported Saturday was 80.3 years and more than 90 per cent had other diseases including cardiovascular diseases, advanced tumors and metabolic diseases, the NHC said. Elderly people are more prone to respiratory diseases and aggravation of cardiovascular diseases in the winter, and Covid infections aggravate the situation, said commission official Jiao Yahui. 

Potential variant

A key concern for other countries is whether the possible emergence of a major new variant that is resistant to current vaccines could reignite the global pandemic. Some countries have imposed restrictions on Chinese travelers. 

The absence of comprehensive information from China makes it “understandable” that other nations are taking steps they believe will protect their populations, WHO Director-General Tedros said two weeks ago. 

Still, China has not reported any dangerous Covid mutations in the six weeks since the abandonment of the rigid curbs.

While the government has largely abandoned testing and tracking of cases, it has submitted data on nearly 1,000 genetic sequences from more than a dozen provinces to the GISAID consortium that tracks variants, since officials started rolling back the Covid Zero approach in November. All the strains closely resemble variants found elsewhere in the world, according to GISAID data.

The Health Commission’s Ma said China will continue to support the role of the WHO in pooling international efforts to fight the virus, according to a statement from the commission. 

There are also signs that China’s Covid surge may be peaking, at least in big cities. At a recent seminar in China, Zeng Guang, former chief scientist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that parts of the country are approaching the peak of their virus waves and life in some major cities is slowly returning to normal. But he warned that many rural areas have yet to see infections surge.