Half of China’s population may get infected with COVID-19 in next few months

A patient is carried to a fever clinic by an ambulance in Beijing, China.
A patient is carried to a fever clinic by an ambulance in Beijing, China. The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

The director of Northeastern’s Network Science Institute says it’s possible that 50% of China’s 1.4 billion people will become infected with COVID-19 in the near future, a scenario that threatens to overwhelm the country’s health care systems and further aggravate world-wide supply chain problems.

“That means 700 million people in the next few months,” says Alessandro Vespignani, whose research models possible scenarios for how a disease might spread.

“We are talking about a large number of people in a very short window of time,” he says.

Headshot of Alessandro Vespignani
Alessandro Vespignani, Director of the Network Science Institute and Sternberg Family distinguished university professor of physics, computer sciences, and health science at Northeastern University. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“This is going to be a serious risk for the health care system. This will affect the economy of China. It will also affect the supply chain for Western countries, and we already are not in a good place because of problems in the supply chain.”

China is easing away from its “zero COVID” policy of locking down entire cities at a time it faces a surge of COVID-19 cases stemming from Omicron sub-variants.

The strict containment policies kept COVID-19 from spreading in the past, Vespignani says.

But the Omicron strains currently in circulation are so contagious they would likely spread among the population even if the old policies were still in place, he says. 

The changes came after protestors took to the streets of Beijing and other major cities against the strict mandates China has had in place for the past three years.

No longer will people with mild or no symptoms be shipped to government quarantine facilities, and officials will no longer be able to label entire residential zones as high risk areas, according to Voice of America.

“It’s more and more difficult to contain these outbreaks. If they start to reopen, the virus will spread very quickly,” he says, adding that Chinese health officials “are trying their best to let it spread but in a way that is not disruptive.”

While China “crushed the curve” in the past, it is now trying to flatten it, Vespignani says.

While the U.S. and other countries emphasized vaccination campaigns and lifted restrictions as massive numbers of citizens got vaccinated, in China, only 40% of the most fragile population (people over 60) have received a booster shot, he says.

“The population is not very well vaccinated and they didn’t use the most effective vaccines available,” the mRNA vaccines, Vespignani says.

“At the moment, it’s likely that (COVID-19) is spreading more in the younger and adult population more than the elderly because they are more active, they are going to work, etc.,” he says. “But sooner or later the virus will spread across the at-risk population.”

Omicron is not as deadly as the original virus or Delta variant, but it can still take a toll on hospital facilities in China as it strikes a “COVID naive” population that has not been exposed to the virus, Vespignani says.

Some projections have estimated that 1 million people in China could die as a result of the surge, he says, adding that deaths could include individuals suffering heart attacks and other health emergencies who are not able to get treated in time.

Vespignani says it is hard to assess the likelihood of mutations emerging from the wave of infections.

There is little evolutionary pressure on the virus to change as it encounters a population that was not exposed to previous infections, he says.

“But we’re talking about millions of infections, so there is some concern that something new could emerge.”

“No one has a crystal ball for what the virus can do,” Vespignani says.

“I hope they will have a strategy to try and slow down this wave as much as possible.”

“I would say that before, in a way, they were dealing very well with the virus,” Vespignani says. “But their exit strategy was really badly orchestrated.”

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