BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese drugmakers rushed to make anti-fever drugs and other treatments for Covid-19 on Thursday, after President Xi Jinping said he was worried about an influx of holidaymakers in rural areas ill-equipped to deal with sudden epidemics.
Xi’s comments come just over a month after his government abruptly scrapped its strict “zero-Covid” controls that had largely protected China’s 1.4 billion people from the disease for three years, but sparked widespread protests in late November.
As travel ramps up during the busy Lunar New Year holiday season, up to 36,000 people could die from the disease every day, according to the latest figures from independent UK forecasting company Airfinity.
China said last Saturday that nearly 60,000 people with Covid died in hospitals between December 8 and January 12 – a roughly tenfold increase from previous disclosures.
However, that number excludes those who die at home, and some doctors in China said they were discouraged from putting Covid on death certificates. Health experts say China’s official figures likely don’t reflect the true toll of the virus.
“Based on reports of overwhelmed hospitals and long queues outside funeral homes, we could estimate that more Covid deaths have occurred so far, possibly more than 600,000 instead of just 60,000,” said Hong Kong epidemiologist Ben Cowling. University.
China’s chaotic exit from a regime of mass lockdowns, travel restrictions and frequent Covid testing has also sparked a drug rush as people fend for themselves against the disease.
To meet growing demand, drugmakers in China are stepping up operations to triple their capacity to produce essential fever and cough medicines, China Daily reported on Thursday.
China has relied on domestic vaccines to fight the pandemic, avoiding foreign-made ones which some studies have found to be more effective, while other foreign treatments for Covid-19 have been hard to come by in China.
Pfizer’s Covid-19 antiviral drug Paxlovid is available in China but has been very difficult to obtain through official channels, according to media and personal accounts. Merck & Co’s antiviral treatment molnupiravir has also been approved but is not yet widely available.
Those particularly vulnerable to the virus are the elderly, many of whom are not fully vaccinated and are now at risk as millions of urban workers travel to their home towns to reunite with their families for the Lunar New Year holidays which begin officially on January 21.
Before Covid first emerged in China’s central city of Wuhan in late 2019, the holiday was known as the largest annual migration of people anywhere on the planet.
“China’s Covid prevention and control is still in a stressful period, but the light is ahead, perseverance is victory,” Xi said in a greeting message broadcast by state broadcaster CCTV on Wednesday.
“I am most worried about rural areas and farmers. Medical facilities are relatively weak in rural areas, so prevention is difficult and the task is arduous,” Xi said, adding that the elderly were a top priority.
Several Chinese cities are set to celebrate the New Year with massive fireworks after local governments rolled back bans on sales in recent years.
Hangzhou, Kunming, Zhengzhou and Changsha – all of which have more than 10 million people – will allow the sale of fireworks, according to business magazine Yicai.
Airfinity estimated on Wednesday that 62 million people could be infected with the virus between January 13 and 27 and that Covid-related deaths could peak at 36,000 a day on January 26, up sharply from previous forecasts.
“Our forecast estimates a significant burden on China’s healthcare system for the next fortnight and it is likely that many treatable patients may die due to overcrowded hospitals and lack of care,” said the analytics director of Airfinity. Matt Linley said.

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