China’s dire Covid crisis could threaten the wider world, with experts warning a potential new variant of concern could emerge that might be “more deadly” than previous strains.

It’s difficult to know for certain just how serious the situation has become after Chinese President Xi Jinping abruptly abandoned his controversial zero-Covid policy recently.

Since then, there has been a tsunami of cases, but the official death toll has remained suspiciously low – prompting accusations of a “cover up”.

There are widespread reports, including from international media on the ground at the virus epicentre, that hospitals, funeral parlours and morgues have been overwhelmed, with local supply chains also buckling.

And as grim photos and videos out of China leave the wider world stunned, experts are now sounding the alarm over a serious global threat that could emerge as a result of China’s latest wave.

Daniel Lucey, a fellow at the Infectious Diseases Society of America and professor at Dartmouth University’s Geisel School of Medicine, told Bloomberg there would “certainly be more omicron subvariants developing in China in the coming days, weeks and months”.

However, he warned the world must react immediately if a new variant of concern were to arise, in order to prevent a global catastrophe.

“It could be more contagious, more deadly, or evade drugs, vaccines and detection from existing diagnostics,” he said of the potential new variant of concern.

The World Health Organisation is also worried about this possible new threat, with Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus telling reporters on Wednesday that more information was needed as a matter of urgency.

“WHO is very concerned over the evolving situation in China with increasing reports of severe disease,” he said, adding that the pandemic was clearly not over.

And infectious disease specialist and WHO advisor David Heymann also told Reuters that while it wasn’t a certainty that a new variant of concern would emerge, “clearly the world should be concerned if people are becoming sick and dying” in China.

China’s current situation is radically different from the wider world’s because it remained completely cut off and isolated for so long, and because of the country’s low vaccination rates, especially among the elderly, with around 130 million older people failing to receive their third booster dose.

China’s reliance on its own vaccines, which have been proven to be less effective at preventing serious illness and death than mRNA jabs used across the world, have also added to the current anxiety being felt, leaving the population with low levels of immunity.

As a result, experts have predicted up to two million out of China’s total population of 1.4 billion could lose their lives in the months ahead.

China’s big change to Covid deaths

China said Wednesday that no one had died of Covid-19 the previous day, after changing the criteria such that most virus deaths are no longer counted.

China had recorded a total of seven deaths – all in Beijing – since its decision to lift its zero-Covid policy, but removed one death from its official tally yesterday.

The removal followed a government announcement that only those who had directly died of respiratory failure caused by the virus would be counted under Covid death statistics.

Previously, people who died of an illness while infected with the virus were counted as a Covid death. This way of recording Covid deaths accounts for huge numbers of fatalities in other countries.

“At present after being infected with the Omicron variant, the main cause of death remains underlying diseases,” Wang Guiqiang of Peking University First Hospital told a press conference of the National Health Commission (NHC) on Tuesday.

“Old people have other underlying conditions, only a very small number die directly of respiratory failure caused by infection with Covid,” he said.

‘Collapse’ of China’s supply chains

Meanwhile, attention is also turning to the dire flow-on effects caused by the current wave, with claims emerging that China’s logistics and transportation sector has already “collapsed” as the illness sweeps the nation.

Viral footage taken in China shows huge piles of boxes lying in the street and packed on top of overfilled vehicles, indicating a heavy backlog of deliveries as the virus decimates local supply chains.

There are also already serious shortages of pain and fever medication, and given China’s status as a global manufacturing hub, there are growing concerns that the crisis will lead to shortages around the world – and price hikes.

And it seems China’s Covid wave was already starting to bite, with US Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo telling Reuters this week the US economy was “already being impacted”.

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