China is by far the world’s largest COVID powder keg – and it may be about to explode.
Not since the early days of the pandemic has the world’s most populous country ever reported more than about 200 cases of coronavirus per day – staggering evidence of the blunt, even brutal, effectiveness of Beijing’s ‘zero COVID’ strategy, which requires strict mass lockdowns at the first flash of an outbreak.
Mainland China has averaged fewer than 50 cases per day for most of the past two years. According to official figures, no one – not one of China’s 1.4 billion inhabitants – has died from COVID since May 16, 2020. As the virus ravaged the rest of the world, China claimed it had essentially disappeared from its country of origin.
But now, tragically, that seems to be changing.
In recent weeks, China’s COVID curve has rocketed straight up, the telltale sign of an Omicron outbreak. Nationally, 5,100 new daily cases were cleared for the first time on Monday. Even in February 2020, when the virus first skyrocketed in Wuhan, that number officially peaked at just 3,300 a day on average.
In other words, it’s entirely possible that Omicron — and its BA.2 subvariant, which is at least 30 percent more transmissible and appears to cause the bulk of new infections — is already causing the worst outbreak in China to date. to. So far, at least 28 of the country’s 31 provinces and regions — including major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen — have reported new infections.
In response, Beijing has followed its usual roadmap. According to CNN, “five cities – together home to more than 37 million inhabitants – are now closed on various levels,” with locals being forced to stay in their homes or neighborhoods as schools, businesses, factories and public transport close and authorities close several rounds of mandatory mass testing. Two mayors in northeast China have been fired; even Shanghai has closed his school system and shifted to online instruction.
As Lei Zhenglong, deputy chief of the National Health Commission’s Bureau of Disease Prevention and Control, said in an interview with the official Xinhua news agency published Wednesday, “Our prevention and control measures” must be “earlier, faster, stricter and more effective.” to be”. because of how quickly and easily Omicron spreads.
But the question now is: how long can this go on?
Treated appropriately, a zero-COVID approach can pay off. Until late last year, New Zealand had essentially eradicated the virus by closing its borders, tackling lockdowns and aggressively testing, detecting and isolating any infection it discovered. Today, only 156 New Zealanders have died from the disease – in all. And the country has almost all restrictions lifted†
Still, there’s a reason New Zealand’s policy worked: It was just as aggressive in vaccinating its people as it was in eliminating the virus. So far, more than 95% of New Zealanders over the age of 12 have been vaccinated; more importantly, nearly 100% of older New Zealanders – by far the most vulnerable group – have received two or more doses of vaccine. By the time the country stopped trying to eliminate the virus, after the increasingly contagious Delta and Omicron variants made it virtually impossible, nearly every resident at risk of serious illness or death already had the antibodies they needed. to ward off the worst outcomes.
Hong Kong, however, was a different story. The city also went for a zero-COVID approach; until Omicron it never recorded more than a handful of cases a day. But when Omicron finally struck, it hit hard, causing new cases of about 100 a day on February 4 to a maximum of over 44,000 a month later.
The problem was that due to hesitation, misinformation and a lack of official urgency, a staggering 66% of residents over 80 had not been vaccinated at the time – and most of those who goods vaccinated had received the Chinese non-mRNA Sinovac vaccine, that is: significantly less effective against Omicron infection† As a result, 1 in 4 reported cases in Hong Kong now result in death; More than 4,500 residents have succumbed to the virus in the past month alone. That is by far the worst death rate in the world, an unimaginable toll two years after the pandemic.
The risk to China – where the Sinovac vaccine is standard, where more than 50 million people over 60 are not fully vaccinated and where at least 15 million people over 80 are not vaccinated at all – is that it is about to be the next Hong Kong to become Kong.
But even if that doesn’t happen – even if Beijing’s more authoritarian “prevention and control measures” prove “earlier, faster, stricter and more effective” than ever before – great risks will remain. First, reports from China suggest people are losing patience with draconian lockdowns. “I really collapsed tonight and have never wanted to leave Shenzhen as much as I did tonight. Since I opened my store on March 1, I haven’t made a cent,” said a response to a WeChat message by the Shenzhen Health Commission: according to the Washington Post†
The Communist Party government is also beginning to recognize the downside of such restrictions, especially as they… hinder major auto and tech suppliers and if Chinese economy is slowing† On Thursday, President Xi Jinping urged the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the highest decision-making body of the Chinese Communist Party, to “seek the greatest prevention and control effect at the lowest cost, and minimize the impact of the pandemic on economic and social development. † according to the Xinhua pers news agency†
Yet China also revised its pandemic guidelines this week to use Paxlovid . to include, the highly effective antiviral pills made by Pfizer — a sign it may not be confident in its current immunity levels to prevent mass death from Omicron. To Chinese residents can receive mRNA boostersBeijing is unlikely to follow New Zealand’s path out of the pandemic, and the same story – breakout, shutdown, breakout, shutdown – will play out over and over.
And that, in turn, puts the rest of the world at risk. When China first launched its zero-COVID plan, experts believed the virus would disappear one day. Now they predict it will circulate forever, and they warn that whatever… versions come after Omicron and BA.2 won’t necessarily be “milder”. The more people in places like China remain unvaccinated or under-vaccinated, the more likely the virus is to develop.
“We haven’t even seen a new, major variant yet, but there are too many reasons to believe it likely will be in the coming months,” says Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Translation Institute for Scripps Researchwrote Wednesday in the Guardian† Adding to all this is what is happening in China, which has relied entirely on a zero-Covid policy, resulting in very little natural immunity, and vaccines that have weak efficacy against Omicron. Now this country is facing major outbreaks in two of its most populous cities, Shanghai and Shenzhen, and no doubt the whole country will be affected. In 2019 we learned that what happens in China does not stay in China.”