BEIJING, Jan 19 (Reuters) - The number of COVID patients needing critical care in China's hospitals has peaked, health authorities said on Thursday, as millions travelled across the country for long-awaited reunions with families, raising fears of fresh outbreaks.
There has been widespread scepticism over China's official COVID data since it abruptly axed anti-virus controls last month that had shielded China's 1.4 billion people from the disease for three years.
China said last Saturday that nearly 60,000 people with COVID had died in hospitals between Dec. 8 and Jan. 12 - a roughly ten-fold increase from previous disclosures.
However, that number excludes those who die at home, and some doctors in China have said they are discouraged from putting COVID on death certificates.
As travel picks up during the busy Lunar New Year holiday season, as many as 36,000 people could die each day from the disease, according to the latest forecasts from UK-based health data firm Airfinity. Other experts predict over 1 million will die from the disease this year.
But a National Health Commission official told a news conference on Thursday that China has passed the peak period of COVID patients in fever clinics, emergency rooms and with critical conditions.
The number of patients with critical conditions in hospital were more than 40% lower on Jan. 17 than a peak seen on Jan. 5, an official said.
The fresh data comes after President Xi Jinping expressed concern that rural areas were ill-equipped to deal with a surge in infections as holidays, which officially start on Jan. 21, bring throngs of city-dwellers back to their home towns.
Before COVID first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, the holiday season was known as the greatest annual migration of people anywhere on the planet.
"China's COVID prevention and control is still in a time of stress, but the light is ahead, persistence is victory," Xi said on Wednesday in a holiday message carried by state broadcaster CCTV.
"I am most worried about the rural areas and farmers. Medical facilities are relatively weak in rural areas, thus prevention is difficult and the task is arduous," Xi said, adding that the elderly were a top priority.
China's chaotic exit from a regime of mass lockdowns, travel restrictions and mass COVID testing, has also prompted a run on drugs as people fend for themselves against the disease.
To meet soaring demand, drugmakers in China are rushing to triple their capacity to make key fever and cough medicines, the state-run China Daily reported on Thursday.
China has so far relied on domestic vaccines to combat the pandemic, eschewing foreign-made ones, which some studies have suggested are more effective, while other foreign treatments for COVID-19 have been hard to come by in China.
Pfizer's (PFE.N) COVID-19 anti-viral drug Paxlovid is available in China but has been very difficult to obtain through official channels, according to media reports and personal accounts. Merck & Co's (MRK.N) antiviral treatment molnupiravir has also been approved for use but is not yet widely available.
Moderna (MRNA.O) chief executive Stephane Bancel told Reuters on Wednesday that the U.S. company was in active discussions to supply COVID-19 vaccines to China.
At a meeting this week, China's National Medical Products Administration pledged to stabilise the prices of COVID-related drugs and crack down on counterfeit sales.
Airfinity on Wednesday estimated 62 million people could be infected with the virus between Jan. 13 and Jan. 27 and that COVID-related daily deaths could peak at 36,000 on Jan. 26, up sharply from previous forecasts.
"Our forecast estimates a significant burden on China’s healthcare system for the next fortnight and it is likely that many treatable patients could die due to overcrowded hospitals and lack of care," Airfinity’s analytics director Matt Linley said.
Looking beyond the death toll, there is optimism that China's reopening will reinvigorate a $17 trillion economy suffering one of its lowest growth rates in nearly half a century.
Owners and managers of China's factories, which make almost a third of the world's manufactured goods, hope to return to normality after years of virus restrictions and a recent wave of infections disrupted business.
China could see a sharp recovery from the second quarter onwards, IMF Deputy Managing Director Gita Gopinath told Reuters at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday.
Those hopes have nudged China's main stock markets and yuan currency to multi-month highs in recent sessions.
Chinese-controlled Hong Kong, which is trying to revive its finance and trade-reliant economy, said on Thursday it will not require people with COVID-19 to quarantine from Jan. 30, removing one of its last major virus restrictions.
Reporting by Bernard Orr, Martin Quin Pollard and the Beijing newsroom; Writing by John Geddie; Editing by Neil Fullick and Tomasz Janowski
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