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China braces for new Covid wave with up to 65 million weekly cases

China is facing a new wave of Covid-19 infections that could see as many as 65 million cases per week by the end of June. This alarming prediction was made by respiratory disease specialist Zhong Nanshan at a biotech conference in Guangzhou. Zhong’s estimate provides a rare glimpse into the potential impact of the latest omicron variant, XBB, which has been fueling a resurgence in cases across China since late April.

According to a Bloomberg report, XBB is expected to result in 40 million infections per week by the end of May before peaking at 65 million a month later. This comes nearly six months after Beijing dismantled its Covid Zero curbs, allowing the virus to spread rapidly among the country’s 1.4 billion residents. In the wake of this pivot to living with the virus, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention stopped updating its weekly statistics earlier this month, leaving many questions about the true impact of Covid-19 in China.
Zhong’s estimate suggests that this latest wave of infections will be more muted compared to the previous wave that hit China late last year and into January. At that time, a different omicron sublineage likely infected 37 million people every day, overwhelming hospitals and crematoriums and causing residents to scramble for limited supplies of fever medicine.
In response to this new threat, China is rushing to bolster its vaccine arsenal with new immunizations that specifically target XBB. The country’s drug regulator has already given preliminary approval to two such vaccines, with another three or four expected to be cleared soon. “We can lead the pack internationally in developing more effective vaccines,” Zhong said.
A World Health Organization (WHO) advisory group recently recommended that this year’s COVID-19 booster shots be updated to target one of the currently dominant XBB variants. New formulations should aim to produce antibody responses to the XBB.1.5 or XBB.1.16 variants, and other formulations or platforms that achieve neutralizing antibody responses against XBB lineages could also be considered.
The group also suggested no longer including the original COVID-19 strain in future vaccines, based on data that it no longer circulates in human beings and shots targeting it produce “undetectable or very low levels of neutralizing antibodies” against currently circulating variants.
COVID-19 vaccine makers like Pfizer/BioNtech, Moderna Inc and Novavax Inc are already developing versions of their respective vaccines targeting XBB.1.5 and other currently circulating strains. The US Food and Drug Administration is also set to hold a meeting of outside experts in June to discuss the strain compositions of COVID-19 shots for later this year; vaccine manufacturers will be expected to update their shots once the strains are selected.
As China prepares for this new wave of infections, it remains to be seen how effective these new vaccines will be in curbing the spread of XBB. With millions of cases expected each week, it is clear that the fight against Covid-19 is far from over.