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China's Latest COVID Wave May Hit 65 Million a Week With Mild Symptoms

Commuters, many wearing face masks, walk along a street in the central business district during the morning rush hour in Beijing, May 26, 2023.

China, where COVID-19 was first identified in humans more than three years ago, expects its current wave of infection to hit as many as 65 million cases per week by late June, according to official accounts of models presented at a medical conference.

While that may be an exhausting number to a post-pandemic world wearied by a still rising toll of 767 million confirmed cases and more than 6.9 million deaths, the predicted onslaught in China comes with less severe symptoms, Wang Guiqiang, director of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Peking University First Hospital, told the official newspaper Beijing Daily.

And, experts say, the outbreak is likely to be confined to China. Raj Rajnarayanan, assistant dean of research and associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology and a top COVID-variant tracker, told Fortune that when it comes to XBB variants, "the rest of the world has seen them all." But up until recently, "China hasn't."

FILE - A staff member sits inside a job information booth that was transformed from a COVID-19 testing booth in Xian, in China's central Shaanxi province, Feb. 13, 2023.
FILE - A staff member sits inside a job information booth that was transformed from a COVID-19 testing booth in Xian, in China's central Shaanxi province, Feb. 13, 2023.

Respiratory disease specialist Zhong Nanshan, who spoke on May 22 at a conference in the southern city of Guangzhou, said the current wave of infections that started in late April was "anticipated." His modeling suggested that by the end of June, the weekly number of infections will peak at 65 million, according to the official Global Times.

After Beijing relaxed the draconian lockdowns enforced under its "zero-COVID" policy, an omicron variant different from the current one ripped through China in December 2022 and January 2023.

About 80% of China's 1.4 billion people were infected during that wave, Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in January, CNN reported. Patients packed hospitals and families waited for days to cremate those who died.

The latest COVID wave is something most people do not take seriously, said Mr. Lin, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. The resident of Quanzhou in Fujian province said, "They go about their activities normally and don't do any protection. No one wears masks."

Mr. Lin told VOA Mandarin he was infected in mid-December 2022, soon after Beijing lifted the lockdowns that had sent the world's second-largest economy into a tailspin.

He realized he was infected — again — in May. Mr. Lin said he knew others who were likely reinfected and didn't even bother to take a COVID test because their symptoms were so mild.

Mr. Zhang, who was infected for the first time in December, told VOA Mandarin he was infected a second time on a business trip to Shanghai and Beijing in May. The Hunan province resident, who asked to use a pseudonym to avoid attracting official attention, thought he had caught a cold because of the air conditioning he encountered on his trip.

But he took a test while still in Beijing and with a positive result, ended up at a hospital where he said a doctor told him, "People all over the country are like this. No need for medical attention at all. Just go home."

After suffering four days with insomnia, loss of appetite and recurring fever, Mr. Zhang went to another Beijing hospital. Admitted, he was given Paxlovid, an anti-coronavirus drug developed by Pfizer.

"I took the medicine at noon and felt relieved at night," he told VOA Mandarin.

During his hospital stay, Mr. Zhang said, "All the infectious disease wards were full, and there was a long queue to get an appointment. The hospital used wards of other departments for patients from the Infectious Diseases Department."

Jin Dong-yan, a biochemistry professor with the Li Ka-shing Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong, told VOA Mandarin there is not much difference between the current situation in China and in the U.S., but the Chinese media devote more coverage to the outbreak.

Jin said, "In fact, looking at the data, the U.S. has experienced about four peaks after the outbreak last year, but each peak is getting smaller and smaller."

The United States, by comparison, was reporting more than 5 million cases a week at its most recent peak in January.

The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 over as a global health emergency on May 5.

Like the U.S., China stopped providing weekly case updates in May, making it difficult to know the true extent of the current outbreak.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded more than 1.1 million deaths in the U.S. involving COVID-19 from January 4, 2020, to May 27, 2023.

In China, from January 3, 2020, to May 31, 2023, there have been almost 100 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, with more than 120,000 deaths reported by Beijing to WHO.

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.