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Covid in China: Officials say current wave is ‘coming to an end’

Chinese health officials say the country’s current wave of Covid-19 infections is “coming to an end”.

The number of severe Covid cases and deaths is trending downward, the country’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a report.

It also said there had been “no obvious rebound” during Lunar New Year holidays last week, where millions reunited for family gatherings.

There have long been questions raised about China’s Covid reporting.

But experts say the decline reported now corresponds with the expected timing of an end to this major wave. 

The virus tore through Chinese cities and towns after authorities lifted zero-Covid restrictions in December. However fever clinic visit rates have dropped over 90% through January and hospitalisation rates are down over 85%.

Separately, the World Health Organization (WHO) said the pandemic remained a global emergency, saying it was too early to lift the highest level of alert which it declared three years ago. 

It said the weekly Covid death rate had been rising in recent weeks and that more than 170,000 Covid-19-related deaths had been reported globally within the last eight weeks, adding that a lack of surveillance now made it more difficult to track down variants. 

But the WHO acknowledged that the world was in a better position than during the peak of the Omicron wave a year ago. 

Fears that the virus could surge again during the festive period have also not yet been realised.

The CDC said: “There has not been an obvious rebound in Covid cases during the Lunar New Year holidays. 

“In this time, no new variant has been discovered, and the country’s current wave is coming to an end.”

It also reported a sharp decline in the daily Covid death toll reported by hospitals – from a peak of 4,300 deaths on 4 January to 896 deaths on 23 January.

Infectious diseases expert Hsu Li Yang told BBC News: “This drop in deaths follows the decline in the first huge wave of cases after China relaxed its restrictions, which is understandable and has been seen in virtually every country experiencing a large Covid wave.

“We will know soon if the Lunar New Year celebrations will trigger another surge in China cases, but it is unlikely to match what was experienced in December and the earlier part of January 2023.”

One of China’s leading epidemiologists – and former head of the CDC – Zeng Guang had earlier this month warned that cases would surge in rural areas during the new year.

BBC News has also found evidence of a considerable number of Covid-related deaths in China’s rural regions, as the virus spread from big cities to more remote areas with older populations.

However, the CDC said there had been no immediate spike following the festive period.

It’s estimated that 226 million passenger trips were taken during the Lunar New Year festive season from 22-27 January – a 70% increase from last year when pandemic restrictions were still in place across many parts of China. 

According to CDC data, Covid deaths halved in consecutive weeks in January. A total of 12,658 deaths were recorded between 13-19 January, while 6,364 deaths were recorded the following week.

In December, Beijing abruptly ended draconian Covid curbs that had seen millions of its citizens locked down over the past three years. 

That led to a severe spike in Covid infections and deaths, with some experts estimating a majority of the population contracted Covid in the weeks following.

A Peking University study said that as of 11 January, some 900 million people in China had been infected with the coronavirus, amid multiple reports of overcrowded hospitals and crematoria. 

However, Chinese authorities initially maintained that there had only been seven deaths since the end of zero-Covid on 7 December, after narrowing its definition of what counts as a Covid death.

The National Health Commission later reported almost 60,000 Covid-related deaths between 8 December and 12 January, after it began including deaths from underlying conditions as well as respiratory failure caused by Covid. 

China’s official Covid data is believed to be vastly underreported, and authorities stopped releasing daily caseload reports last month. 

Beijing has said it has been sharing Covid data in “a timely, open and transparent manner in accordance with the law.”