China faces a mountain of medical waste

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Beijing (AFP) – 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 generated a huge 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, now to avoid overwhelming its hospitals in the face of the low vaccination rate of 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 technology companies, cities are now dotted with small prefabs or tents that offer free PCR tests.

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

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

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

Screening for Covid-19, June 20, 2022 in Beijing Noël CelisAFP

“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 tightened its legislation against air and water pollution over the past decade.

– Multiplied by six –

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.

PCR test tubes, April 18, 2022 in Shanghai
PCR test tubes, April 18, 2022 in Shanghai LIU JINAFP/Archives

For a few dozen positive cases detected each day in China, it will have been necessary to screen hundreds of millions of people and to 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 where a total of 600 million people live have announced one form or another of general and regular screening of their population.

No national data is available, but authorities in Shanghai said 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 higher than 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 able to cope with a significant increase in medical waste,” Yanzhong Huang, public health specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP. American thinking.

– “Ineffective and eliminated” tests –

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

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

An employee pulls out a medical waste bin at Youan Hospital in Beijing in February 2020
An employee pulls out a medical waste bin at Youan Hospital in Beijing in February 2020 Greg BakerAFP/Archives

The government is requiring provincial capitals and cities of at least 10 million people to set up testing sites within a 15-minute walk of each resident.

But expanding regular, mandatory screening across China could cost 0.9% to 2.3% of the country’s GDP, analysts at Nomura Bank revealed last month.

For Jin Dong-yan, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Biomedical Sciences, these widespread PCR tests are “really inefficient and reserved” and force local governments to give up other useful investments in the health sector. health.

Authorities are also considering missing out on positive cases because the Omicron variant spreads faster and is harder to detect, he said.

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

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