New Covid variant in China could infect 65 million people a week from June, says official

China is reportedly bracing for a new Covid-19 wave that could infect nearly 65 million people weekly by the end of June.

The fresh wave caused by the XBB variant comes at least six months after Chinese authorities lifted its "zero-Covid" policy that saw draconian restrictions, including lockdowns, imposed on citizens.

Zhong Nanshan, a top Chinese epidemiologist, said at a conference in Guangzhou that the “anticipated” wave began in late April and that his modeling suggested China could be approaching 40 million infections per week.

By the end of June, the weekly number of infections will peak at 65 million, he said.

That two new vaccines for the XBB omicron subvariants (including XBB. 1.9.1, XBB. 1.5, and XBB. 1.16) had received initial approval, he said, adding that three to four other vaccines were set to be approved soon, The Washington Post reported.

The new strain of coronavirus was a cause of concern earlier this year, spiking cases from India in Asia to the US in the West.

However, the WHO earlier in May downgraded its assessment of the coronavirus pandemic, saying it no longer qualifies as a global emergency.

According to the Chinese authorities, the new wave is likely to be less severe, but public health experts say that an aggressive vaccine booster programme and a ready supply of antivirals at hospitals are required to prevent a surge in deaths.

“The number of infections will be less. The severe cases will be certainly less, and deaths will be less, but that could still be a large number,” Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health told the Post.

“Even when we think this is a milder wave, it could still be quite a substantial health impact on the community."

At least 80 per cent of China’s 1.4 billion people were infected during the Omicron variant wave in December and January, said Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

That variant caused mass infections, overwhelming hospitals and crematoriums across cities.

In the last month, Covid overtook flu as the most common infectious disease, according to health authorities.

Joey Wang, a 24-year-old student in Hebei province, told NBC News that several people were finding Covid symptoms less severe this time around. “No more media coming out trying to terrify the public, no more ‘fight the pandemic’ type of short videos to alert people, and no more hardcore measures like the lockdown,” he said.

Health officials have reassured the public that reinfections have milder symptoms and healthcare facilities won’t face a challenging situation. Hospitals have advised residents to wear masks and for the elderly and immunocompromised to avoid crowded places.

“I feel like the impact has not been that big,” said Olivia Zhang, 33, who works at an amusement park in Beijing. “But they will only be out for a short time before coming back to work. No one is scared of being around them,” she told the Post.

So far the Chinese authorities have not reimposed the restrictions prevalent under the “zero-Covid” policy.