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Beijing urged to roll out Covid boosters to avoid 1mn deaths

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Beijing must rapidly roll out booster shots and antiviral drugs as well as enforce social controls if China is to avoid a Covid-19 death toll of close to 1mn people, according to a new report part-funded by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

President Xi Jinping last week abandoned his zero-Covid strategy of mass testing, quarantines, citywide lockdowns and fastidious electronic contact tracing. The decision has unleashed China’s biggest uncontrolled wave of coronavirus cases since the pandemic started in Wuhan nearly three years ago.

According to the research paper, authored by three University of Hong Kong professors, China can reduce the death toll during the reopening phase to 448 — 530 people per million. Given China’s population of 1.4bn people, the modelling implies a best-case scenario of about 627,200 to 742,000 deaths.

Without the interventions, the death toll would be 684 people per million, or about 957,600 people, the modelling shows. That figure is in line with private sector forecasts reported by the Financial Times of about 1mn deaths during a winter wave of infections. The US, with a population of 330mn people, suffered 1.1mn fatalities.

The model requires fourth-dose vaccination coverage and antiviral coverage of 85 per cent and 60 per cent, respectively, as well as public health measures and social restrictions to significantly reduce the rate of transmission. As of late November, more than 90 per cent of the population had received two jabs, but fewer than 60 per cent had received their third with vaccine uptake among the elderly a stark problem.

“Although the surge of disease burden posed by reopening in December 2022-January 2023 would likely overload many local health systems across the country, the combined effect of vaccination, antiviral treatment and [public health and social measures] could substantially reduce Covid-19 morbidity and mortality as China transits from dynamic-zero to normality,” the report, which was also funded by the Hong Kong government, said.

“Planning for such a nationwide, co-ordinated reopening should be an urgent priority.”

The new model was released as Chinese industrial production and retail sales figures missed estimates in November, underlining the impact of widespread lockdowns on output and consumer demand.

Industrial production, which includes the manufacturing, utilities and mining sectors, grew by 2.2 per cent compared with a year earlier, well below economists’ expectations of 3.6 per cent growth.

Retail sales, an important gauge of consumer spending, which has lagged behind throughout the pandemic, declined by 5.9 per cent year on year compared with expectations for a 3.7 per cent contraction.

The economy has struggled under the dual pressures of zero-Covid lockdowns and a property sector slowdown, which have made both consumer demand and investment difficult to stimulate. The country’s exports have also suffered in recent months amid a deteriorating global economic climate and weakening demand.

“China’s activity data came in worse than expected, suggesting that the Covid restrictions have further slowed economic activities, particularly on consumption,” said Hao Zhou, chief economist at Guotai Junan International.

“Industrial production also contracted, pointing to the slowdown domestically and externally,” he added. “The weak activity data suggest that . . . policy needs to be eased further to revive the growth momentum.”

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