Shanghai and more than a dozen other cities in China are now in full or partial lockdown as the country faces its largest spike in COVID-19 cases so far during the pandemic. But with the rapid rise in cases of the ultratransmissible Omicron variant and China’s relatively low vaccination coverage among the elderly, some experts are scratching their heads at the lack of reported deaths.
In Shanghai, a city of around 26 million that functions as the country’s financial hub, residents’ patience is running out as they enter a second week of full, draconian lockdown. Videos of people have been circulating on the internet scream from their homes and berate officials about food shortages. There are reports of people being denied medical care and being forced into overcrowded quarantine facilities. Early in the lockdown, officials were widely criticized for separating parents from young children, including breastfeeding infants.
China has reported more than 200,000 infections in Shanghai since the outbreak began last month. The vast majority of these are said to be mild or asymptomatic. So far, Chinese officials have reported that only one case in the city has been classified as serious and no deaths from COVID-19 have been reported.
And that’s despite China’s failing to achieve high vaccination rates among its elderly population, who are most at risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19. Only about half of people aged 80 and over in China are fully vaccinated, and even fewer have received booster doses. Earlier this year, Hong Kong, which had similarly low vaccination rates among its older adults, saw an equally sharp rise in omicron cases and recorded one of the highest daily death rates in the world.
In an interview on Monday on CNBC Squawk box, Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration and current Pfizer board member, expressed skepticism about the figures reported by China. “It seems they’ve lost control of it [outbreak] in Shanghai. There are many more infections than reported,” he said. “The data that comes out there is not plausible. They claim … just one severe case and no deaths – we know that’s not true.”
Gottlieb pointed to previous reports by the Wall Street Journal and others of outbreaks at geriatric care hospitals, with numerous deaths. A hospital worker who spoke to the WSJ last month recalled seeing half a dozen hearses parked outside the hospital gate at night. “I was scared to death. I said, ‘Look, look, these are dead bodies,'” the worker told the newspaper. Shanghai has 4 million residents over the age of 65, making its population one of the oldest in China, the WSJ found.
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