News analysis

China sees justification for its zero Covid-19 policy with Omicron variant

There has been little indication that China will ease up on its zero tolerance policy towards Covid-19. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIJING - As countries around the world begin reinstating travel restrictions on concerns over the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus, China appears to take that as vindication of its zero-tolerance policy towards Covid-19.

There has been little indication that the country will ease up on this hardline approach. More so with the Winter Olympics set to begin in Beijing in just over two months, and an important twice-in-a-decade political meeting scheduled to take place late next year.

Since early in the pandemic, China's strategy has included a raft of strict quarantine measures for the few with special dispensation to enter the country, as well as a series of community-based containment measures.

Among other things, these entailed neighbourhood committees enforcing social distancing and proper hygiene within communities, and limiting the sale of drugs such as cold medicine and paracetamol in pharmacies.

Only officially sanctioned labs are allowed to conduct Covid-19 tests, which means that any positive reading immediately triggers targeted lockdowns.

While this has not prevented sporadic outbreaks - a flare-up that started just after the Golden Week holiday in October was only recently put under control - infection numbers in China are still far lower than that of many other other countries that have decided to adopt the approach of treating the disease as endemic, which means living with the virus.

On Tuesday (Nov 30), China's health authorities reported 39 new Covid-19 cases, 21 of them local cases in Inner Mongolia, which the National Health Commission said stemmed from an imported infection.

Two cities in the area bordering Russia have suspended commodity imports by rail in a bid to lower the risk of infection.

In a study published last week by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, scientists from Peking University warned of a "colossal outbreak" should the country's borders be reopened.

They mapped the response strategies of the United States, Britain, Israel, Spain and France, modelling what would happen should similar policies be implemented in China.

There was no mention of why the five countries were specifically chosen for the research, which was partially funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"The estimates revealed the real possibility of a colossal outbreak which would almost certainly induce an unaffordable burden to the medical system," the study concluded.

"Our findings have raised a clear warning that, for the time being, we are not ready to embrace 'open-up' strategies resting solely on the hypothesis of herd immunity induced by vaccination advocated by certain Western countries."

This was echoed by several top doctors over the weekend, saying the Chinese government's zero-Covid-19 approach will allow it to better cope with the more infectious Omicron variant.

The country's current "rapid response and dynamic zeroing-in of new infections" are capable of tackling all variants, said Dr Zhang Wenhong, an outspoken infectious diseases specialist based in Shanghai.

During a conference organised by Caijing Magazine in Beijing last week, he noted that should current vaccines prove ineffective against the variant, there would be a need to adjust the vaccination regime and perhaps develop annual versions of the vaccine, much like that for the flu.

As at Monday, China has administered nearly 2.5 billion doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, with many cities already offering the third booster shot to residents. Currently, 1.11 billion people, or 79.2 per cent of the population, have been fully vaccinated.

People line up to receive the Covid-19 jabs outside a vaccination site in Guangzhou, on May 29, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS/CNSPHOTO

Once the fully vaccinated rate is close to 100 per cent, China and Hong Kong are in a better position to reopen their borders to the world, said Professor Ivan Hung, chief of the infectious diseases division at the University of Hong Kong and a member of a government panel on Covid-19 in the territory.

"The emergence of the Omicron variant has provided further justification that the current zero-tolerance policy adopted by China and (Hong Kong) is correct," he told The Straits Times.

"It is important to roll out the second-generation vaccine incorporating the Delta and Omicron variants as soon as possible."

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