End of strict COVID measures in China could result in 1.5 million deaths

Marco Ajelli of the Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington is one of several authors of “Modeling transmission of SARS-CoV-2 Omicron in China,” published recently in Nature Medicine. The paper states that if China rescinds Zero-COVID policies, the country’s healthcare system will almost certainly be overwhelmed.

The authors assert that the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 would—in the absence of existing, strict protective measures — likely kill 1.5 million people in China within a very short period.

“Our study shows that a COVID outbreak of this size will overwhelm the Chinese healthcare system, particularly the intensive care units,” Ajelli says. “This does not account for other illnesses that also require beds. If there is a bed shortage due to a sharp increase in COVID cases, people with other infections will not have access to necessary care, further increasing the number of likely deaths.”

Ajelli notes that only about half the people in China over the age of 80 are vaccinated against COVID-19. He states that improving vaccination rates, especially in the elderly; access to antiviral therapies; masking; and other non-pharmaceutical interventions are critical to slowing the pandemic, regardless of whether China eliminates zero-COVID practices.

“As scientists, our job is to provide evidence and numbers,” he adds. “We do not make policy recommendations or dispense advice. We provide important data so that leaders in China can make the most informed decisions possible for their country and their people.”

“It is vitally important that Chinese leaders communicate and educate their citizens regarding the value of protection against COVID,” says Dr. Philip Eskew, professor emeritus in the IU School of Medicine. “In this paper, Dr. Ajelli and his colleagues provide a great deal of evidence to consider with respect to the wellness of the most vulnerable people in their country.”

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