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Over a million could die as China’s COVID wave crashes into huge holiday

With mass Lunar New Year travel later this month, COVID may devastate rural areas.

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Enlarge / An elderly female patient with COVID-19 is treated at No. 2 People’s Hospital of Fuyang City in China. (credit: Getty | Sheldon Cooper/SOPA Images/LightRocke)

With China’s zero-COVID policy abruptly scrapped last month, the pandemic virus is now ripping through the country’s population, and health experts are bracing for a wave of devastation as peak transmission shifts from urban centers to more vulnerable rural communities. The dire situation is expected to be “dramatically enhanced” by mass travel later this month for celebrations of the Lunar New Year on January 22.

Multiple modeling studies have suggested that China could see around 1 million deaths in the coming weeks as the country reopens amid a raging outbreak. Last month, modeling by The Economist estimated that 96 percent of China’s 1.4 billion people could catch the virus within the next three months, resulting in 1.5 million deaths. Of those deaths, 90 percent would be among people aged 60 and over.  Another modeling study, partly funded by China’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also estimated that 957,600 would die in the coming weeks if the country doesn’t swiftly roll out fourth-dose COVID-19 vaccines.

Because China was previously able to keep COVID-19 waves at bay with its zero-tolerance policies, most of the country’s immune protection derives from vaccination rather than prior infection or hybrid protection. Around 90 percent of China’s population has had two shots of COVID-19 vaccines, but fewer than 60 percent have received a third shot as a booster dose. And even for those who have gotten a third dose, many of those doses were taken months ago, and peak protection has passed. Vaccination coverage among the elderly is particularly worrying. About 30 percent of people aged 60 and over have not gotten a third dose, and for people aged 80 and over, a startling 60 percent have not gotten a third dose.

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