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Wuhan is once again besieged by Covid — three years after it recorded the world’s first cases

HONG KONG — Three years after the world’s first case of coronavirus was recorded, the central Chinese city of Wuhan is once again under siege by Covid-19.

The Chinese government’s abrupt lifting of “zero Covid” measures following mass protests has released the virus into the world’s most populous country. Experts say inadequate vaccinations and little immunity after three years of global isolation impose new restrictions on travelers from

But residents of the city of 11 million said they were feeling more relaxed, in contrast to early 2020, when the virus was deadlier as the 76-day lockdown emptied the streets of Wuhan. I’m here. A subspecies of Omicron.

A medical worker moves between overcrowded hospital beds outside the hospital’s fever clinic after the government eased restrictions on coronavirus disease, Wuhan, Hubei province, China, December 10, 2022. (Martin Pollard/Reuters via Alamy)

“People are no longer afraid of the virus,” said Jasmine Lee, 25, who works at a real estate firm. People are desperate for things to get better now.”

The U.S. and other governments that have announced new travel requirements have cited a lack of transparent data from China, which has stopped reporting cases nationwide. The country, with a population of 1.4 billion, has a narrowly defined Covid death toll, with only a handful reported since it lifted restrictions earlier this month, marking the start of the pandemic. The official death toll since then is 5,246.

Multiple Wuhan residents interviewed by NBC News reported hearing Covid-related deaths in their communities in recent weeks. Many were among the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions. Experts, including UK-based health data firm Airfinity, say more than 1 million people will die in the United States, which makes up a quarter of China’s population, compared with about 1 to 2 million deaths in China by the end of 2023. We predict that people can die from Covid. With over 3,000 he per million, he is one of the highest Covid mortality rates in the world.

One reason is that the virus spread unchecked in the United States early in the pandemic, before a vaccine was developed, according to Dr. David Owens, founder of OT&P Healthcare in Hong Kong.

“I don’t see a scenario in which China’s proportionate mortality rate is higher than that of the United States,” he said.

China's covid restrictions eased in everyday life in Wuhan.  (AFP - Getty Images)

China’s covid restrictions eased in everyday life in Wuhan. (AFP – Getty Images)

Chinese officials say a ‘zero Covid’ strategy saved lives early in the pandemic and the current outbreak is under control. Emphasis shifted to increasing immunizations and treating severe cases.

“Prevention of severe illness and death should be a priority at this stage,” Dr. Liang Wannian, an epidemiologist and senior government adviser, told reporters on Thursday.

At the same press conference, officials denied claims that China had not provided genome sequencing data from the current epidemic, ultimately denying more about Covid deaths based on an analysis of “excess deaths.” He said he would provide a lot of information.

“We are keeping nothing secret and all of our work is shared with the world,” said Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

After the coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan at the end of 2019, China has been accused of downplaying the severity of the outbreak and restricting access to information.

China’s first wave of infections following the lifting of restrictions could end by February or March, said Fujian Song, a professor at the University of East Anglia in England who has modeled the current outbreak. However, the virus may reach smaller, remote areas later, giving it more time to prepare.

Newly vaccinated people in major cities are more likely to catch the virus before they are fully protected, but Song said, “In some areas, vaccination may make a difference. There may be,” he said.

Vaccination is especially important for the elderly in China. Many resisted vaccination for fear of side effects or because they believed there was little risk of infection under “zero Covid.”

Guan Zhi, 73, from Wuhan, said he contracted the virus within days of the lifting of restrictions.

“I had high blood pressure, but it wasn’t too bad and I was fine in about a week,” he said.

Guan said he learned that infectious diseases were rampant in his area and that two retired employees at his former workplace, aged 91 and 93, had died from Covid-related causes.

Wuhan subway resumes normal operation.  (AP)

Wuhan subway resumes normal operation. (AP)

“People don’t go out and my friends are afraid to go downstairs,” he said. “I also had to recover for seven or eight days before I had the courage to walk down the stairs.”

Dr. Siddharth Shridhar, a clinical virologist at the University of Hong Kong, said that the peak of COVID-19 in China is still ahead and that serious illness takes time to develop, especially among the elderly. said it may not be clear for some time whether the full impact of the outbreak will emerge.

“It’s usually the younger, more mobile population that gets infected first,” he said. “Then you go into a nursing home, where the damage is most severe.”

Sridhar, Owens and many other experts say “zero Covid” was the right strategy for China in the early days of the pandemic when no vaccine was available. Due to low vaccination rates, they struggled to stay away from it, and after protests, they lifted restrictions en masse. Without a controlled transition, there would have been no time to increase vaccination, strengthen emergency care infrastructure, or expand the availability of antiviral treatments like Paxlovid.

According to Sridhar, the consequences would be fatal.

“That basically means there will be a very large epidemic, a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life,” he said.

Xie Zhicong, a resident of Wuhan, said everyone in her family was infected, except for her grandmother.

Xie, a 25-year-old salesperson, said it was difficult to see a doctor when she went to the hospital for a check-up last week.

“There were no doctors or nurses because everyone was showing positive symptoms,” he said.

The hospital Xie visited did not respond to a request for comment on Xie’s allegations. A pharmacist who contacted another Wuhan hospital declined to comment on the record.

Xie said those who have recovered are looking forward to life after three years of “zero Covid” restrictions.

“Some of my friends have already bought tickets for their Lunar New Year trip to Thailand.

Travel services companies have seen a surge in bookings for international flights on their websites since China announced on Tuesday it would resume issuing tourist passports for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

Many countries such as Southeast Asia and Europe are eager to bring back high-spending visitors from China, which was the world’s largest outbound tourism market before the pandemic, but the United States, including Japan, remains the top Chinese traveler. Some of the destinations in South Korea — and South Korea — have mandated Covid testing for arrivals from the country.

Chinese state media have criticized the restrictions as “discriminatory”, but the European Union’s health agency said on Thursday that the additional measures for travelers from China were “unjustified”. GISAID, a German-based public database, said this week that an analysis of the latest genome sequencing data shared by Chinese health officials showed that the Chinese variant is highly similar to one already circulating globally. said to have been shown.

China is going through a massive outbreak, much like it was at the start of the pandemic, but when it’s over, the virus won’t have much of a place to go, Sridhar said.

“In some ways, this may be the last act of the pandemic.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com.