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WHO chief warns that China’s zero-Covid strategy is not sustainable

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The head of the World Health Organization has warned that China’s zero Covid strategy is not sustainable as new modeling has shown the country is at risk of triggering a ‘tsunami’ of coronavirus infections and causing 1.6 million deaths if he left politics.

“As we all know, the virus evolves, changes its behavior, becomes more transmissible. With this change in behavior, changing your measurements will be very important. When we talk about the zero Covid strategy, we don’t think it’s sustainable,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday.

He said the WHO had discussed the matter with Chinese experts, adding that “given the behavior of the virus, I think a change [in China’s strategy] will be very important”.

The remarks came as modeling projections by researchers at Fudan University in Shanghai estimated that an uncontrolled surge of the Omicron coronavirus variant could lead to 112 million symptomatic infections, 2.7 million admissions in intensive care and nearly 1.6 million deaths between May and July.

The study, published in the scientific journal Nature, highlighted fears that China could be hit hard by a big wave of Omicron if restrictions were eased, due to its low uptake of vaccines among older age groups and his reliance on less effective injections.

The researchers also said that, given the fast-spreading nature of Omicron, “it is debatable whether and for how long a zero-Covid policy can remain in place.”

According to the study, demand for intensive care beds would exceed capacity by more than 15 times at the peak of the outbreak. Unvaccinated people are estimated to account for three-quarters of the 1.6 million projected deaths, despite making up around one-eighth of the population.

China recorded 763,845 Covid-19 cases and 555 deaths from early March to May 9, but some experts questioned the reliability of the data.

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The researchers pointed out that while China’s vaccination rates were “insufficient” to prevent an Omicron surge from overwhelming hospitals, access to vaccination and antiviral therapies for vulnerable groups alongside non-pharmaceutical interventions, such that testing and mask-wearing, “should be points of attention in future mitigation policies”.

Since Omicron began spreading in China in March, authorities have stuck to the zero-Covid policy in an effort to contain the outbreak. Confirmed cases and their close contacts have been sent to centralized quarantine facilities, mass testing has been rolled out and 41 cities are under full or partial lockdown measures, according to Nomura estimates.

Chinese state media has pointed to the risk of large numbers of deaths to justify the closures as people grow weary of being kept indoors. Shanghai, the financial capital, has been under draconian restrictions for more than a month.

Professor Marco Ajelli, an infectious disease modeler at Indiana University’s School of Public Health who contributed to the study, said China could be “charting a path away from zero-Covid” by vaccinating more older people and using a Western-made vaccine instead of at least the effective Sinovac and Sinopharm shots from back home.

According to official figures, only 61.5% of over-60s in China had received a third dose as of May 5.

If Covid cases were to spread unmitigated, results would vary widely between different regions, according to modeling data. Shanghai, which has one of the lowest levels of vaccination coverage among the elderly, is expected to suffer 1.79 deaths per 1,000 people, while the eastern coastal province of Shandong, which has much higher coverage, is expected to have 0.84 deaths per 1,000 people. .

Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong who was not involved in the study, stressed that the projections “should not be read as [a] recommendation to continue with zero-Covid”.

“In many ways, zero-Covid was a cause rather than an effect of low vaccination coverage among the elderly. The zero-Covid approach made older people reluctant to get vaccinated because they saw no need or urgency for it,” he added.

Additional reporting by Eleanor Olcott in Taipei

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