Chinese medical experts have decided to clarify the criteria for calculating deaths related to COVID-19. This will include patients dying of pneumonia and respiratory failure caused by the disease and exclude those dying of pre-existing illnesses, they said on Tuesday.
As new variants are emerging amid a first wave of infection spikes, experts said close surveillance of viral mutations will be stepped up and the elderly should get vaccinated and take precautions.
Wang Guiqiang, head of the infectious disease department at Peking University First Hospital, said that the primary cause of death of patients infected with Omicron is chronic disease. Due to the diminishing pathogenicity of Omicron and expanding vaccination, few eventually died from respiratory failure triggered by the disease.
To gain a scientific and fact-based count of COVID-19 fatalities, the National Health Commission recently gathered experts to discuss and formulate categorization criteria for deaths, he said during a news briefing.
"Deaths primarily resulting from pneumonia or respiratory failure brought by the novel coronavirus will be listed as COVID-19 deaths, while patients who died of other preexisting diseases, such as cardiovascular illnesses, will not be included," he said.
The mainland reported five new COVID-19 deaths on Monday, up from two on the previous day. The total fatalities stood at 5,242 as of Monday, according to the commission.
Currently, the dominant strains on the mainland remain BA.5.2 and BF.7 — two offshoots of Omicron — while a total of over 130 sublineages of Omicron have been detected in the past three months, said Xu Wenbo, head of the National Institute for Viral Disease Control and Prevention with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Newly detected variants include the highly watched BQ.1 and XBB strains, totaling about 60 cases across a number of provinces, he said.
"The BQ.1 and XBB strains have higher transmissibility and are more capable of evading immunity, but their pathogenicity has not risen," he said. "Although they are rising to dominance in some foreign countries, there is no report pointing to increasing rates of severe cases and deaths."
Xu added that 50 of the 130-plus sublineages found on the mainland have led to local infection clusters.
"These sublineages, along with the current dominant strains of BA.5.2 and BF.7, will likely co-circulate in the country in the future," he said.
Xu said that Omicron is inclined to mutate toward building a stronger immune evasion ability, and the chance of it becoming more deadly is very slim.
With the potential co-circulation of different variants, experts said that recovered Omicron patients are at risk of contracting a different strain after some time.
Wang, the infectious disease expert, said that a second bout of infection is usually very mild. However, a study in the United States shows that repeated infections among the elderly can increase the risk of death.