China should stick to its strict Covid Zero strategy: Country's top expert

Mainland China and Hong Kong are among the last places on Earth pursuing Covid Zero. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - China should stick to its strict Covid Zero strategy, according to the country's top virus expert, whose comments contrast with signals that the approach is being tweaked to ease economic pain even as infections climb.

"There should not be an iota of relaxation," said Professor Liang Wannian, a seasoned epidemiologist who has overseen China's Covid-19 response since the beginning of the pandemic and was recently sent to Hong Kong to guide efforts to contain its worst ever outbreak.

His remarks, made in an interview with state news agency Xinhua, came hours after Hong Kong set out a plan for easing its most stringent curbs to salvage its status as a global financial hub.

Mainland China and Hong Kong are among the last places on Earth pursuing Covid Zero, with the strategy facing unprecedented challenges after the highly transmissible Omicron strain breached the defences that had kept the virus at bay for much of the pandemic.

Hong Kong has already moved away from key pillars that had underpinned its zero-tolerance approach, easing isolation and case reporting criteria.

At the suggestion of Prof Liang, the city put plans for mass testing on hold in order to prioritise vaccinations and preventing deaths.

In the mainland, officials are seeking to navigate a path that limits disruptions to the world's second-biggest economy - a target outlined by President Xi Jinping last week - while getting its biggest outbreak in two years under control.

While the country has returned to typical measures like lockdowns in some areas, the spread of the virus to some of its most economically significant hubs like Shanghai and Shenzhen has added an extra degree of difficulty in achieving Mr Xi's dual goals.

"Strengthening defence comes first in epidemic control," Prof Liang said.

"We need to dash the fantasy of the virus slowing down even without intervention," he said.

"If the virus was found too late or not met with timely intervention, it will spread exponentially."

In a sign of a potential blueprint, the tech hub of Shenzhen on Monday lifted a weeklong lockdown, though kept some restrictions in place, after the municipal government said the spread of the virus is coming under control.

Shanghai has resisted a full-blown lockdown so far.

The country must continue to weed out every infection, as allowing it to roam through the community would lead to massive case numbers and hurt vulnerable groups like the elderly and people with weak immune systems, Prof Liang said.

"It's still too early to call Omicron the 'bigger flu'," Prof Liang said.

"For individuals, it's becoming less likely to cause severe disease, but Omicron's fast spread means substantial infections and high incidence of severe disease and death in the whole population, which is still a huge hazard."

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