Scientists have warned it could be too early to declare the end of the COVID-19 pandemic amid fears of a potentially devastating new wave in China.
It comes after China started to dismantle its zero-COVID policy this month following a spike in infections and unprecedented public protests.
Projections have suggested the world’s second-largest economy could now face an explosion of cases and more than a million deaths next year after the abrupt change in course.
China’s zero-COVID approach had kept infections and deaths comparatively low among the population of 1.4 billion.
But the World Health Organisation (WHO) had said the approach was not “sustainable” due to rising concerns over its impact on people’s lives and the nation’s economy.
President Xi Jinping’s move last week has changed the global picture, experts said.
Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, who sits on a WHO committee tasked with advising on the status of the COVID emergency, said: “The question is whether you can call it post-pandemic when such a significant part of the world is actually just entering its second wave.
“It’s clear that we are in a very different phase [of the pandemic], but in my mind, that pending wave in China is a wild card.”
As recently as September, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had said “the end is in sight” for the pandemic.
Last week, he told reporters in Geneva that he was “hopeful” of an end to the emergency at some point next year.
Alongside the risks for China, some global health figures have warned that allowing the virus to spread domestically could also give it space to mutate.
They fear this could potentially create a new variant in line with how it has evolved when allowed to spread among high populations in other regions.
David Heymann, an infectious disease specialist and WHO adviser, said: “I don’t think anybody can predict for sure whether we could see new variants that might be a concern to the rest of the world, but clearly the world should be concerned if people are becoming sick and dying [in China].”
He added the situation in China would likely continue to represent an emergency, but that it may present more of a regional problem than global.
China uses a narrow definition of COVID deaths and reported no new fatalities for Tuesday, even crossing one off its overall tally since the pandemic began.
The death toll stands at 5,241 – a fraction of figures seen in many less populous countries.
China’s National Health Commission said this week that only deaths caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure in patients who had the virus are being classified as COVID deaths.
But Benjamin Mazer, an assistant professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins University, said such a classification would miss “a lot of cases”.
He added: “It doesn’t make sense to apply this sort of March 2020 mindset where it’s only COVID pneumonia that can kill you. There are all sorts of medical complications.”
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