- Hearses lined up outside the crematorium in Beijing
- China reports no new deaths; some criticize the accounting
- Beijing is facing a wave of severe COVID in the next two weeks – expert
BEIJING, Dec. 21 (Reuters) – Dozens of hearses lined up outside a crematorium in Beijing on Wednesday even as China reported no new COVID-19 deaths in the growing outbreak, sparking criticism of virus accounting as the capital braced itself for a wave of cases.
Following widespread protests, the country of 1.4 billion this month began dismantling its unpopular “zero-COVID” lockdown and testing regime, which has largely contained the virus for three years, albeit at a high economic and psychological cost.
The abrupt change left a fragile health system unprepared, with hospitals scrambling for beds and blood, pharmacies for medicines and authorities scrambling to build special clinics. Experts say China could face more than a million COVID deaths next year.
The head of the World Health Organization said he is concerned about the spike in infections and supports the government to focus on vaccinating those most at risk.
Amid a heavy police presence outside a crematorium in Beijing’s Tongzhou district, a Reuters witness saw about 40 hearses lined up to enter as the parking lot filled up.
Inside, family and friends, many in traditional white clothing and headbands of mourning, gathered around about 20 coffins awaiting cremation. Staff wore hazmat suits and smoke billowed from five of the 15 furnaces.
Reuters was unable to verify whether the deaths were caused by COVID.
Some Beijing residents have to wait days to cremate relatives or pay high fees to get faster service, funeral directors said.
An employee of a Beijing funeral home posted on social media an offer of “quick hearse arrangement, no queue for cremation” for a fee of 26,000 yuan ($3,730).
Reuters was unable to verify the offer.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters the agency needed more detailed information on the severity of the disease, hospitalizations and intensive care unit requirements for a comprehensive assessment.
“WHO is deeply concerned about the changing situation in China, with reports of serious illnesses on the rise,” he said.
His comment came as the German government confirmed it has sent its first batch of BioNTech (22UAy.DE) COVID-19 vaccines to China to be administered initially to German expatriates.
China has nine domestically developed COVID vaccines approved for use. But none have been updated to target the highly infectious Omicron variant, as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna (MRNA.O) have for boosters in many countries.
China uses a narrow definition of COVID deaths and reported no new fatalities on Tuesday, even surpassing one of its total tally since the start of the pandemic, now at 5,241 — a fraction of the toll of many much less populated countries.
The National Health Commission said Tuesday that only deaths from pneumonia and respiratory failure in patients who had the virus are classified as COVID deaths.
Benjamin Mazer, an assistant professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins University, said classification would miss “many cases,” especially since people who are vaccinated, including with Chinese injections, are less likely to die from pneumonia.
Blood clots, heart problems and sepsis – the body’s extreme response to infection – have led to countless deaths among COVID patients around the world.
“There’s no point in applying this kind of March 2020 mindset where only COVID pneumonia can kill you,” Mazer said.
“There are all kinds of medical complications.”
The death toll could rise sharply as the state-run Global Times newspaper quotes a Chinese respiratory expert as predicting a spike in serious cases in Beijing in the coming weeks.
“We must act quickly and prepare fever clinics, emergency supplies and resources for serious treatment,” Wang Guangfa, a respiratory specialist at Peking University First Hospital, told the paper.
Wang expected the COVID wave to peak in late January and life likely to return to normal in late February or early March.
The NHC also downplayed international concerns about the possibility of virus mutations, saying the likelihood of new strains being more pathogenic was low.
Paul Tambyah, president of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, supported that view.
“I don’t think this is a threat to the world,” he said. “Chances are that the virus will behave like any other human virus and adapt to the environment it circulates in by becoming more transmissible and less virulent.”
Several prominent scientists and WHO advisers told Reuters that a potentially devastating wave coming into China means it may be too soon to declare the end of the global pandemic emergency.
Some US and European officials have offered to help mitigate a crisis they fear will hurt the global economy and disrupt supply chains.
From the epicenter in northern China, the infections are spreading to production areas, including the Yangtze River Delta, near Shanghai, disrupting workforces.
Retail and financial services have been hit hard by staff shortages, with factories not far behind, industry associations say.
Employees of the Communist Party and government agencies or enterprises in the southwestern city of Chongqing who have mild COVID symptoms can go to work wearing a mask, the state-run China Daily reported.
Other media reported similar decisions in other cities.
China is still largely cut off from the outside world, but there are signs that COVID restrictions on international travel are also easing.
Chelsea Xiang, 35, said she had to quarantine for just two days in the southwestern city of Chengdu after returning from Hong Kong on Sunday, instead of the officially required minimum of five.
“I feel like I have my human rights again,” Xiang said.
Reporting by Thomas Peter, Alessandro Diviggiano, Albee Zhang, Bernard Orr, Martin Pollard, Eduardo Baptista, Joe Cash and Ryan Woo in Beijing, Casey Hall in Shanghai, Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Chen Lin in Singapore; Written by Marius Zaharia and Alexander Smith; Edited by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel and David Evans
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