China's zero-Covid policy will allow Beijing to cope with Omicron, say health experts

BEIJING (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – China’s existing Covid-19 containment strategy, characterised by resolute and prompt responses to cut transmission and tackle new outbreaks, should be sufficient for tackling the new Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, Chinese health experts and officials said.

They added that the country’s zero-Covid policy should continue to be enforced this winter and spring, as new modelling shows that dropping it prematurely would risk causing “a colossal outbreak”.

Dr Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said the new strain appears to be more contagious than the Delta variant due to its exceptionally high number of spike mutations.

“But no matter how the virus mutates, regular public health measures, such as wearing masks, maintaining social distancing and hand hygiene, will be effective against all emerging variants,” Dr Wu said during a conference organised by Caijing Magazine.

He said that whether the Omicron variant replaces the Delta variant as the dominant strain worldwide will depend on its biological characteristics, the mobility of those infected and the implementation of containment measures.

“The development of the Omicron strain should be further observed. For now, there is no need to be over-concerned,” he said. “As long as we adhere to regular disease control measures, widespread circulation of the strain can be prevented.”

The Omicron variant was designated as a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation on Friday amid concerns over its strength and higher rate of infectiousness.

In a statement released on Monday (Nov 29), the National Health Commission said that genome sequencing analysis shows that mutations of the new strain will not affect the sensitivity and specificity of mainstream nucleic acid tests in China.

It added that the China CDC has established testing methods designed for the Omicron variant and will continuously sequence genomes of imported cases to catch possible infections in a timely manner.

Dr Zhang Wenhong, an infectious diseases doctor based in Shanghai, said two more weeks of monitoring and data collection is needed to determine the new variant’s impact on the pandemic’s trajectory.

China’s current “rapid response and dynamic zeroing of new infections” are capable of tackling all variants.

The strategy has also enabled China to win a window of opportunity in terms of building up scientific support to fight the virus, he said. Ongoing work includes enhancing reserves of vaccines and drugs to support the global battle against the pandemic, and boosting inventories of China’s public health and medical resources.

However, Dr Zhang noted that if the Omicron strain can elude the immunity induced by vaccines in use, “we will need to adjust our vaccination regime and develop annual versions of vaccines based on the latest mutations, in the way flu vaccines have worked”.

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Dr Wu, from the China CDC, also said the impact of existing vaccines might be diminished, and administering booster shots widely is vital to maintain immunity against the emerging strain.

He added that China’s overall epidemic situation remains stable and under control against a backdrop of surging infections globally.

“This remarkable outcome is largely thanks to the central approach of intercepting the spread of the virus, tackling new outbreaks and implementing quarantine for incoming travellers,” he said.

“By the most conservative estimates, the strategy had averted 47.8 million Covid-19 infections and 950,000 related deaths in China,” he said.

As the outlook for the pandemic remains serious for this winter and spring, Dr Wu said these measures should continue to be enforced.

“Formulation and adjustment of virus control measures should be done with extreme caution and with every detail and procedure being taken into consideration, so as to avoid making mistakes or taking the wrong path,” he said.

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