China to exit zero-Covid strategy? Top scientist says it cannot 'remain unchanged forever'

WION Web Team
Beijing, ChinaUpdated: Mar 01, 2022, 07:39 PM IST
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People queue up at a community testing centre for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Hong Kong, China Photograph:(Reuters)

Story highlights

China is wary of the risk of new variants, especially as it refuses to import foreign vaccines

In a possible sign that China's leadership is rethinking its zero-Covid strategy, top Chinese scientist Zeng Guang has said that Beijing's strategy against Covid-19 cannot "remain unchanged forever.''

He added that "it is the long-term goal of humanity to co-exist with the virus'' at tolerable death and illness rates.

Other than putting China at odds with the rest of the world and the policy is exacting a mounting economic toll.

Zeng is the former chief scientist of China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention and one of the experts behind the country's initial Covid response. 

Zeng said that while China's approach had prevented the early chaos of widespread infection experienced by many Western countries, its low infection rate was now a "soft spot" as far fewer people had built up natural immunity.

He said Western countries were now showing "commendable courage" in exploring how to live with the virus and that China should "observe and learn" even though there was still "no need to open the country's doors at the peak of the global pandemic".

"In the near future, at the right time, the roadmap for Chinese-style co-existence with the virus should be presented," Zeng said.

His comments are unusual for an official in China's government, which has touted its low infection rates to the Chinese public as a sign of the superiority of its approach.  

"For a large country with a population of 1.4 billion, it must be said that the cost effectiveness of our country's prevention and control has been extremely high," said Liang Wannian, head of the expert epidemic prevention group at China's National Health Commission.

Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, called on China last week to "reassess" its approach, saying it had now become a "burden" on both the Chinese and global economies.

But China is concerned the cost of lowering its defences could prove even higher, especially with a healthcare system that has lagged its broader development. 

It is also wary of the risk of new variants, especially as it refuses to import foreign vaccines. Studies suggest China's vaccines are less effective against Omicron and it has not yet rolled out its own mRNA version.

"With a large population and high density the government is rightly concerned about impacts for the spread of the virus," said Jaya Dantas, professor of international health at the Curtin School of Population Health in Perth, Australia.

China had 4.7 million registered nurses at the end of 2020, or 3.35 per 1,000 people, official data showed. 

Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center For Disease Control and Prevention, warned the "insidious" Omicron could still lead to a rise in the absolute number of deaths even if it was proven to be less deadly, and China must remain patient.

"China's medical capacity and standards are not as good as Britain or the United States, but the results of China's coronavirus prevention and control are far, far superior," he said in a weekend interview with the Beijing News.

'Premature optimism'

China has stepped up its health warnings, urging citizens to ignore claims that Omicron is no more serious than the 'flu and to stay vigilant.

On Wednesday, the Global Times, published by the official People's Daily, also lashed out at overseas media for "mocking" China's policies, saying they saved lives.

Foreign criticism was "based on unfounded or premature optimism regarding the end of the pandemic", it added.

Experts in China and overseas have also cast doubt on the hope that Omicron represents the final stage of the pandemic.

"SARS-CoV-2 will not magically turn into a malaria-like endemic infection where levels stay constant for long periods," said Raina MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Research Programme at the University of New South Wales' Kirby Institute.

"It will keep causing epidemic waves, driven by waning vaccine immunity, new variants that escape vaccine protection, unvaccinated pockets, births and migration," she said.

The country where the coronavirus was first detected in 2019 is now one of the last places still clinging to a zero-tolerance approach, responding to small outbreaks with snap lockdowns and cutting off most international travel.

(With inputs from agencies)