China will stop counting asymptomatic Covid-19 cases but accelerate vaccinations as the world’s most populous country is hit by an uncontrolled coronavirus outbreak.
The National Health Commission on Wednesday said that high numbers of asymptomatic patients were no longer participating in testing, making it difficult to provide accurate figures.
China has dramatically scaled back testing requirements and shut test facilities over the past two weeks. Before that, citizens had to test regularly to enter public transport, places of work and most public spaces.
The decision to stop publishing asymptomatic case data follows President Xi Jinping’s U-turn on pandemic controls after three years of relentless lockdowns, mass testing, quarantines and contact tracing. But analysts said the deepening opacity was just the latest evidence of Beijing’s inadequate preparations.
Health system experts also warned that the lack of accurate data on both cases and deaths in China meant it would be difficult to assess the rate at which the disease was spreading through the world’s second-biggest economy.
Official case numbers had become the target of public ridicule after plunging from a high of nearly 40,000 in late November to about 7,500 on Tuesday. This was despite clear evidence that the outbreak was sweeping through cities.
Central Beijing, the capital, on Wednesday was largely deserted, with office workers staying at home. Only the city’s ubiquitous delivery riders were still plying the streets.
But there were signs even they were succumbing to Covid as online vendors warned of delays or an inability to deliver because of a lack of drivers.
The NHC reported just 2,249 locally transmitted cases on Wednesday after the asymptomatic category was axed.
Efforts to vaccinate the nearly 90mn elderly Chinese who remain inadequately protected from the virus are rising, however.
The NHC said that a second booster shot could be given six months after the first booster to people with a higher risk of infection, severe existing conditions, weaker immune systems or over the age of 60.
The decision follows forecasts that China risked suffering 1mn deaths in the coming months if it continued to dismantle antivirus curbs as well as warnings from local officials that the country needed to accelerate its approval process for updated jabs.
More than half of Chinese over 60 received a booster before March this year, heightening uncertainty over the efficacy of Chinese vaccines compared with messenger RNA jabs used in the west.
As the virus spreads, so too have doubts about whether China has used the three years of Xi’s zero-Covid policy to bolster the country’s healthcare system with enough intensive care units and professionals to deal with an influx of patients with severe symptoms.
“Insufficient vaccination levels and inadequate healthcare resources mean China has embarked on a messy zero-Covid exit strategy that will sorely strain the public health system and the economy,” said Xinran Andy Chen, an analyst at China consultancy Trivium.
“We expect things to get a whole lot worse before they get better.”
Swiss Re chief economist Jérôme Haegeli said that the reopening should be positive for longer-term economic growth but that there would be short-term uncertainty.
“With the quick exit of Covid policies, it’s almost kind of a ‘reverse government shutdown’. It’s not the government that mandates the shutdown but more down to every person ,” he said
“People would be more cautious, because they haven’t been exposed to the virus to the same extent before. So the playbook will be different for China.”
He added: “Consumption and GDP growth will take a hit, I can also imagine short-term deflation instead of inflation.”
Additional reporting by Cheng Leng in Hong Kong and Joe Leahy in Beijing