Could China’s Covid outbreak put the fight against the virus back to square one?
China’s mammoth Covid outbreak provides an “ideal environment” for the development of a mutant variant that’s more contagious and makes vaccines less effective – but the world is unlikely to go back to zero, experts said.
A surge in infections is sweeping the country after Beijing abandoned its zero-Covid policy earlier this month, which had led to draconian lockdowns, extensive testing and isolation for cases and contacts imposed for almost three years.
The country, which has stopped reporting daily Covid cases and deaths, will face a million cases and 5,000 deaths a day, according to some estimates. Hospitals were overwhelmed and morgues were filling up.
Experts told MailOnline that the situation is the perfect breeding ground for the emergence of “pesky” new variants that could spread more easily and evade immunity.
However, others noted that a new variant “is no more likely to emerge in China than anywhere else” and the majority of Britons have already been infected with Omicron, the dominant strain in the country.
The chart “Our World in Data” shows the daily confirmed Covid cases in China. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention stopped reporting daily cases last week without giving a reason. Around 5,000 cases per day and a small number of deaths were reported last week. However, some estimates suggest that China is actually seeing a million cases a day and 5,000 deaths
According to daily reported cases, which depend on testing levels, China recorded 2 cases per million people in the week ended December 22, while the UK reported 97 and the US 200
Our World in Data figures show that 89 percent of people in China have been bitten twice, while 75 percent in the UK and 69 percent in the US have received two doses
Low immunity – to the point of poor vaccination rates and a lack of previous infections – is believed to be driving the wave.
Experts have warned that the new outbreak, which shows no signs of slowing down, could have a global impact.
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, told MailOnline: “The rapid spread of Covid in China is a matter of great concern.
“A combination of hesitant vaccination, the use of less effective vaccines – certainly compared to mRNA spike vaccines – and relatively low waves of previous infections mean the Chinese population does not have high levels of protective immunity.
“This leads to widespread infection with consequent high rates of serious illness and death, and also provides an ideal environment for the development of new variants.”
China has so far relied on its own vaccines – Sinovac and Sinopharm.
Recent data suggests that mRNA syringes, used in most other countries, reduce the risk of hospitalization by up to 84 percent compared to Omicron.
Meanwhile, data on China’s homegrown vaccines is limited.
However, experts have long warned that jabs using older technology are not as effective.
Scientists have warned that this has put the country in a “difficult situation” due to its substandard vaccinations and the low natural immunity of its population, as a small rate of the population has been infected with the virus for years of restrictions.
Professor Young noted that any new variant ‘would have to compete with the current mix of highly transferrable Omicron variants’.
Surveillance data suggests that the Omicron subvariant BA.5 is still behind the majority of Covid infections in China.
Since the cultivar emerged last winter, its subvariants have remained the most common cultivars worldwide, with no other worrying variants taking hold.
However, Professor Young added: “We cannot rule out the possibility that a more contagious variant may emerge from the large number of people now infected in China.
“This could spread if we don’t monitor people traveling to the UK from China.”
China announced yesterday that it would lift its quarantine policy for travelers from January 8 after nearly three years of closed borders.
The move makes travel much easier for those living in China, while those looking to work, study or visit family can now enter.
Sequencing data suggests the BF.7 omicron subvariant is on the rise in China, causing 35.3 percent of the positive cases examined in labs
It is estimated that BF.7 has a growth advantage of 30 percent, suggesting it may spread more easily, make people infectious longer, or evade the immune system better than the currently dominant BA.5 strain
The scale of the outbreak and doubts about official data from China prompted the US, India, Italy, Taiwan and Japan to impose new travel rules on Chinese visitors.
However, other nations, including Britain and France, have indicated they will not follow suit.
dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading, told MailOnline: ‘Every time someone contracts Covid, the likelihood of a problematic new variant emerging increases; more infections mean more variants.”
dr Clarke said: “More travel by their citizens is likely to spread more of the virus.”
Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline: “With the large number of infections in China at the moment, there is an increased risk of a new variant emerging.”
However, he noted that immunity to major diseases – in response to vaccination and previous infections – was “generally well preserved”.
‘In order to, [it is] Unlikely but not impossible that a new variant will emerge causing significant additional problems,” he said.
Sequencing data suggests the BF.7 omicron subvariant is on the rise in China, causing 35.3 percent of the positive cases examined in labs.
Masked travelers check their passports when queuing at the check-in counter at Beijing Capital International Airport today
A medical worker attends to a patient at the emergency room of Ganyu District People’s Hospital in Lianyungang, northeast China, on December 28 amid the Covid outbreak
Pictured: A Covid patient being wheeled into a wheelchair at Tianjin First Center Hospital in Tianjin, northeast China, on December 28
This strain was first spotted in Europe in January 2022 before peaking globally in the fall. It is now declining worldwide except for China.
Italy, screening visitors from China, has not detected any new coronavirus variants, with all cases being Omicron variants already present in Europe.
Other scientists are less concerned that China’s outbreak could cause global disruption.
Professor Robert Dingwall, a sociologist at Nottingham Trent University who advised the government at the start of the pandemic, said: “There is no particular reason to think that a new variant is any more likely to emerge in China than elsewhere.”
And Professor Francois Balloux, an infectious disease expert at University College London, noted that the Covid strains circulating in China have previously spread to the rest of the world.
He told MailOnline: “This is a different situation to previous waves like the Alpha, Delta or Omicron waves, which were largely powered by then-novel, more transmissible variants.”
Current variants are not expected to spread in poorly immunized populations like China, “substantially increasing the risk of new variants emerging in the short term,” Professor Balloux added.
Experts say the outbreak was caused by President Xi Jinping’s government sticking to its zero-Covid policy for so long after vaccines were rolled out.
The hermit strategy left little to no natural immunity to China’s population.
In contrast, countries in the West, including the UK, resorted to living with the virus, which now poses a milder threat thanks to the immunity afforded by the vaccine and natural infections.
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https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-11582363/Could-Chinas-Covid-outbreak-push-fight-against-virus-square-one.html?ns_mchannel=rss&ns_campaign=1490&ito=1490 Could China’s Covid outbreak put the fight against the virus back to square one?