Scientists have warned it may be too early to declare the end of the COVID-19 pandemic amid fears of a potentially devastating new wave in China.
This comes after China started to dismantle its zero-COVID policy this month following an unprecedented spike in infections and public protests.
Projections suggest the world’s second-largest economy could now face an explosion of cases and more than a million deaths next year after the abrupt change in course.
China’s Zerocovid approach had kept infections and deaths relatively low among the population of 1.4 billion.
But the World Health Organization (WHO) had said the approach was not “sustainable” due to growing concerns about its impact on people’s lives and the country’s economy.
President Xi Jinping’s decision last week was a global game-changer, experts said.
Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, who sits on a WHO committee tasked with advising on the state of the COVID emergency, said: “The question is whether you can call it post-pandemic when such a large part of the world is actually entering its second wave.
“It is clear that we are in a very different phase [of the pandemic]but in my mind, this impending wave in China is a wild card.”
As recently as September, the head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, declared that “the end is in sight” of the pandemic.
Last week he told reporters in Geneva he hoped “the emergency will end sometime next year”.
Along with the risks for China, some global health figures have warned that allowing the virus to spread domestically could also give it space to mutate.
They fear it could potentially create a new variant in line with how it evolved when allowed to spread among high populations in other regions.
David Heymann, infectious disease specialist and adviser to the WHO, said: “I don’t think anyone can predict with certainty whether we might see new variants that might worry the rest of the world, but it’s clear that the world should worry if people get sick and die [in China].”
He added that the situation in China would likely continue to represent an emergency, but that it could present more of a regional problem than a global one.
China uses a narrow definition of COVID deaths and reported no new deaths for Tuesday, even striking one from its overall tally since the start of the pandemic.
The death toll stands at 5,241 – a fraction of the figures seen in many less populated countries.
The speed at which the virus is growing in China will be shrouded in secrecy
China’s National Health Commission said this week that only deaths caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure in virus-infected patients are classified as COVID deaths.
But Benjamin Mazer, an assistant professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins University, said such a classification would miss “a lot of cases.”
He added: “It doesn’t make sense to apply this kind of March 2020 mentality where only COVID pneumonia can kill you. There are all kinds of medical complications.”