Omicron Puts China’s Zero-Covid Strategy to Its Toughest Test

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The country’s effort to remain in the bubble points to more frequent and longer lockdowns with the advent of the highly contagious form

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China has stuck to its “zero-Covid” strategy despite the growing toll on its people and economy, and as other countries ease away from lockdowns. Health experts say the highly contagious Omicron variant will be harder to manage, with the potential to lead to more frequent and longer-lasting restrictions.

Professor Ben Cowling, chair of epidemiology at Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, said: “Covid-zero is great when you’re at zero, but when you’re not, it can be very disruptive to the community. “

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According to officials familiar with the government’s thinking, central government officials showed no intention of changing their approach to COVID-19, which they saw as a success amid the Omicron boom. Some officials said Beijing is concerned that any further easing of controls could lead to a major breakout in coronavirus cases, given the relatively low efficacy of Chinese vaccines and remaining pockets of unvaccinated people in rural areas.

“An outbreak would put a huge strain on the country’s resources,” said one of the officials, referring to China’s limited health facilities, especially in rural areas.

On Sunday, officials in Tianjin, a port city half an hour from Beijing by high-speed train, said they had found two locally transmitted omicron infections. A day later, two people in Henan province, some 300 miles apart, were linked by the same transmission chain.

The discoveries set off a now-familiar choreography: lockdowns, mass testing and warnings of impending restrictions.

Tianjin suspended train and bus service to Beijing and on Wednesday began a second round of testing in the city of 14 million. Henan has closed most schools and banned public gatherings, including temple fairs and other celebrations, before the Lunar New Year. Several local governments in the 99 million province have issued stay-at-home orders.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has tended to a more top-down approach to any issue, and local officials fear they could be punished if they allow COVID-19 a foothold, central err on the side of an aggressive interpretation of Government policy guidelines.

The resulting measures are putting it on communities across China, were demonstrated in the city of Xi’an, whose 13 million people have been ordered to stay in their homes for nearly three weeks. Some complained of lack of access to food. A wave of anger erupted online in response to the drastic measures as a woman lost her unborn child after waiting hours outside a hospital for lack of a valid COVID-19 test.

Two other Xi’an women told similar stories online, while others said that family members with chest pains had suffered fatal delays, incidents that showed a significant increase in the public’s patience with inflexible zero-Covid policies. The turning point was Confusion over access to healthcare prompted a rare and direct public admission of wrongdoing. At a news conference, Xi’an’s health commission chief Liu Shunzhi apologized to residents. “We are deeply sorry,” he said.

Xi’an’s lockdown is the largest since Wuhan was sealed off in early 2020, and one of many carried out across China since the start of the pandemic. Ruili, a city of about 200,000 on China’s border with Myanmar, has faced at least four lockdowns in a little more than a year, with residents spending months in isolation at a time. In October, more than 30,000 visitors were locked down at Shanghai Disneyland and forced to undergo a COVID-19 test after one visitor tested positive.

Economists are citing Omicron’s potential to take a greater toll on China’s slowing growth this year, as restrictions and spreading infections keep many people off work and make others reluctant to spend.

In a January 3 note, the Eurasia Group called China’s zero-Covid policy—and its potential failure to contain infections—its top risk for the year, adding that continuing in a similar fashion would lead to more economic disruption, more states. The population dissatisfied over intervention and the narrative propagated by a state media that China has defeated COVID-19.

China’s recent Covid-19 outbreak has led to factory closures and port closures, raising fears of a global supply disruption. Ningbo-Zhoushan, the world’s third-busiest container port near Shanghai, is at risk of worsening the backlog after more than two dozen confirmed COVID-19 infections in the vicinity. In August, the port was temporarily closed after a case was detected.

There is no easy option before China. About 86% of its population has received two doses of vaccine, but the only vaccines approved for home use by SinoPharm and Sinovac use inactivated virus. They are widely considered to be less effective against omicron infections than the mRNA vaccines developed by Moderna. Inc.

and by Pfizer Inc.

with BioNTech SE,

A Sinovac spokesperson cited a preliminary study published in December showing that three doses of its vaccine provided some protection against Omicron but two were less effective. The study, which has not been peer reviewed, was based on blood samples from 120 participants in China. Sinoform could not be reached for comment.

Zhong Nanshan, China’s top Covid-19 expert defending the zero-Covid policy, said last week that in theory China had reached herd immunity through its high level of vaccination. He acknowledged that Chinese vaccines are less protective against COVID-19 than mRNA vaccines, but added that based on studies involving the delta variant, they are still able to limit severe disease. He said that about 24 percent of the people in China have got the booster shot.

An official familiar with the matter said China is ramping up its efforts to make domestic mRNA vaccines and drugs for Kovid-19.

China has recorded a total of 104,189 Covid-19 cases, and 4,636 deaths from the virus. China tallies both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases, but includes only the former in the official count of confirmed cases.

Late last year a model from Peking University estimated that new daily cases could top 600,000 if China abandons its zero-Covid strategy.

Some health experts said China could potentially address omicrons with various mitigation measures because omicrons typically cause less-severe disease, China has a higher vaccination rate and doctors around the world now have better information. That’s how to treat Kovid-19.

“The world is in a different phase of the pandemic,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of South Africa’s Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation. He noted the experience in South Africa, which has emerged from the recent surge in Omicron cases with manageable results.

Even if China was willing to take the risk, managing public perceptions in a country that lived in the relative safety of the bubble the harsh sanctions created would be difficult. Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said: “The focus was on highlighting the threat of the virus in the state and on social media, and at times exaggerating how serious the problem is in Western countries. Is.”

Observers say that if China does away with its zero-Covid strategy, it will likely happen after the Winter Olympics, which kick off on February 20, and before the Communist Party Congress with a not-yet-disclosed one. , China’s leaders will likely try to engineer the change known as the no-exit wave, as countries like Australia are now seeing a surge in infections.

Previously, Beijing is taking no chances, setting up a “closed loop” around the events and warning residents not to try to assist Olympic vehicles, even if they are involved in a road accident. And instead wait for the response of the authorities, because of the COVID-19 controls.

The intense focus he puts on stamping out Covid-19 cases at all costs, like a Xi’an man with the oranges locked at home when he announced the restrictions, was now rotting. He is in his 30s and identifies himself by his surname, Zhang, and supports holistic COVID-19 policies, but worries about the use of a yardstick for every outbreak.

“Without the lockdown and containment measures, the situation would have been much worse than it is now,” he said. In the first days of Xi’an’s lockdown, he could still see people walking their dogs from his window. “But all of a sudden, local government shifted into a one-policy-fits-all mode: everything was about COVID control, regardless of the specific circumstances.”

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