China faces a mountain of medical waste

China faces a mountain of medical waste


Every day in China, officers in full suits insert hundreds of millions of disposable swabs down throats for large-scale PCR testing. Problem: the operation generates an immense amount of medical waste.

With its zero COVID strategy, the Asian giant is the last major economy to want to prevent any infection at all costs, officially to avoid to overwhelm its hospitals in the face of low vaccination rates among seniors.

In its anti-coronavirus arsenal: mandatory quarantines, localized confinements and therefore massive screenings, which have become almost daily in certain places.

From Beijing to Shanghai, via Shenzhen, the “Chinese Silicon Valley” home to many tech companies, cities are now dotted with small prefabs or tents that offer free PCR tests.

Hundreds of millions of people are required to get tested every three or two days , even daily.

These PCR tests, which create an immense mass of medical waste, constitute an increasing economic burden for local authorities, already heavily indebted, which must devote tens of billions of euros to it.

“The amount of medical waste that is generated daily is almost unprecedented in human history,” said Yifei Li, an environmental expert at New York University in Shanghai.

< p>“The problems are already huge and they will continue to get worse,” he told AFP.

China, where the environment has suffered heavily from economic development, has strengthened during the last decade its legislation against air and water pollution.

The country is also aiming for carbon neutrality by 2060, an ambitious and extremely uncertain goal given the Asian giant's current dependence on coal.

The generalization of PCR tests poses a new environmental challenge.

For a few dozen positive cases detected every day in China, it will have been necessary to screen hundreds of millions of people and use an enormous mass of tubes, swabs, packaging and combinations.

If not disposed of properly, this medical waste can contaminate soil and waterways.

According to an AFP count, Chinese cities and provinces home to a total of 600 million people have announced some form of general and regular screening of their population.

68,500 tonnes of medical waste

No national data is available, but authorities in Shanghai reported last month that 68,500 tonnes of medical waste was generated during the city's lockdown between mid-March and early June.

This represents a daily amount six times the normal.

Under Chinese regulations, authorities are responsible for sorting, disinfecting, transporting and storing this waste before disposing of it – usually by incineration.

“But I'm not sure that (…) rural areas are truly able to cope with a significant increase in medical waste,” Yanzhong Huang, public health specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP. American think tank.

Some local communities may not know how to deal with this large amount of waste, or simply store it in landfills, believes Benjamin Steuer, of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Kong.

Questioned by AFP, the Ministry of Health indicated that it had formulated “specific requirements concerning the management of medical waste” relating to COVID-19.

The government requires provincial capitals and cities of at least 10 million inhabitants to set up test sites within a 15-minute walk of each inhabitant.

But generalize regular and compulsory screening to the whole of the China could cost 0.9% to 2.3% of the country's GDP, Nomura bank analysts estimated last month.

For Jin Dong-yan, a professor at the school of biomedical sciences from the University of Hong Kong, these widespread PCR tests are “really inefficient and expensive” and force local governments to forego other useful investments in the health sector.

Authorities also risk to miss positive cases because the Omicron variant spreads faster and is harder to detect, according to him.

“It won't work,” he says. “It's like throwing millions of dollars out the window.”