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China Facing a Potentially Devastating Wave of Covid-19

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China Facing a Potentially Devastating Wave of Covid-19

Because of a potentially devastating wave in China, World Health Organization advisors say that it may be premature to declare the end of the COVID-19 pandemic emergency phase. Their perspectives represent a shift since China began dismantling its zero-COVID policy last week, in response to an increase in infections and unprecedented public protests.

According to projections, the world’s second largest economy could now face an increase in cases and more than a million deaths next year as a result of the abrupt change in course.

China’s zero-COVID strategy had kept infections and deaths comparatively low among the country’s 1.4 billion people, but WHO labeled it “unsustainable” this year due to growing concerns about its impact on both citizens’ lives and the country’s economy.

According to experts, President Xi Jinping’s decision last week has altered the global landscape.

“The question is whether you can call it post-pandemic when such a large portion of the world is still in its second wave,” Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, who sits on a WHO committee tasked with advising on the status of the COVID emergency, told Reuters.

“It’s clear that we’re in a different phase [of the pandemic], but that looming wave in China is a wild card in my opinion.”

China is trapped between increasing Covid-19 cases and stagnant vaccination rates.

Even as recently as September, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared that “the end is in sight” for the pandemic. He told reporters in Geneva last week that he was “hopeful” that the emergency would be over by next year.

China Behind other countries

Most countries have lifted COVID restrictions as the threat of a dangerous new virus variant or a large surge in infections has subsided in the second half of this year.

Tedros’ earlier remarks raised hopes that the UN agency would soon remove COVID’s Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) designation, which has been in effect since January 2020.

Koopmans and the other members of the WHO advisory committee are expected to make a recommendation on the PHEIC in late January. Tedros makes the final decision and is not bound by the committee’s recommendations.

The WHO’s highest level of alert associated with a disease outbreak is emergency, and it helps international organizations prioritize funding and assistance for research, vaccines, and treatments.

Some global health experts predicted that China would wait for the WHO to declare the pandemic over before relaxing its own pandemic response measures.

“Dr Tedros must strike a balance here,” WHO Emergencies Director Mike Ryan told reporters last week in Geneva. “I believe the world still has… work to do. The job is not finished.”

Ryan stated that the WHO advisory committee would likely meet informally before their official meeting next month, and that unequal access to vaccines around the world was another key reason why COVID was still likely to be an emergency.

He added that rising rates of other seasonal respiratory infections, in addition to COVID, were putting a strain on northern hemisphere healthcare systems.

Along with the risks for China, some global health experts have warned that allowing the virus to spread domestically could allow it to mutate, potentially creating a new variant similar to how it has evolved in other regions.

Lack of complete data

Data from China shared with both WHO and the virus database GISAID shows that the variants circulating there are the globally dominant Omicron and its offshoots, though the picture is incomplete due to a lack of complete data.

“The bottom line is that it’s unclear whether the wave in China is variant-driven or simply a breakdown in containment,” said Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College in London.

In any case, experts say the focus should be on assisting China if it requests assistance. They believe that increasing vaccination rates for vulnerable populations, particularly the critical booster dose, should be a priority.

“I don’t think anyone can predict whether we’ll see new variants that are a concern to the rest of the world, but clearly the rest of the world should be concerned if people are getting sick and dying [in China],” said David Heymann, an infectious disease specialist and WHO advisor who serves on a separate committee from Koopmans.

He added that the situation in China would most likely remain an emergency, but that it might be more of a regional issue than a global one. To address issues like this, WHO member states are currently working on re-designing the rules that govern global health emergencies.

Source: Reuters

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