News analysis

China unlikely to budge from zero-Covid-19 strategy despite Omicron

Staff wearing personal protective equipment spray disinfectant outside a shopping mall in Xi'an. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - The next few weeks will be key to whether China will remain the last major country in the world to pursue a zero-Covid-19 policy or possibly ease up on it.

Some parts of the country are now gripped by a new wave of Covid-19 cases, triggered by the more deadly Delta strain of the coronavirus as well as the less severe but highly transmissible Omicron variant.

The timing for any decision is tricky with barely two weeks to the Chinese New Year holidays when many usually travel home to see their families and the Feb 4 opening of the Winter Olympics.

Several cities, including Xi'an in Shaanxi province and Anyang in Henan province, have endured weeks of lockdowns while an Omicron flare-up has resulted in travel restrictions in Tianjin, which borders the capital, Beijing.

The restrictions have not prevented the Omicron variant from emerging in Beijing with the city reporting its first case last Saturday (Jan 15), a 26-year-old woman with no recent travel history out of the capital.

The authorities pinpointed an international parcel from Canada as the source for her infection, issuing advisories for residents to reduce buying foreign items and to open parcels outside of their homes if necessary; parcels dispatched from other cities have faced delivery delays due to additional checks and disinfection measures.

"By placing the blame on airmail, the onus of responsibility for the outbreak and resulting disruptions shifts from domestic to foreign sources," said Associate Professor Nicholas Thomas, who specialises in health security at the City University of Hong Kong.

Even as Beijing reported five new local infections on Wednesday (Jan 19), the city's party chief Cai Qi told a meeting that extra attention needed to be given to cold chain logistics, Beijing Daily reported.

During an outbreak which began in a Beijing wholesale market in mid-2020, officials had pinpointed imported salmon as the cause at the time.

Despite the size of that outbreak - hundreds across the city were infected, including in the Xicheng district, home to China's top government offices - the nation's political heart was never put under lockdown.

Many believe that is unlikely to happen now too.

"It is a tense moment given the attention on Beijing, and officials are no doubt worried because the new variant is so infectious, but to completely shut off the city in the style of Xi'an or Zhengzhou would be for (city officials) to lose face," said Dr Willy Lam, a senior fellow specialising on China at the Jamestown Foundation, a US-based think tank. 

The way the situation plays out over the coming weeks in former zero-Covid-19 countries like Singapore would offer a lesson for China should it decide on a change in strategy, said Associate Professor Karen Grepin from the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong.

"Singapore is at a very important stage right now because there could be a wave of Omicron right as it is coming out of a Delta one and how it plays out would be informative for China as it makes decisions on its next steps," she said.

There is also hope that with major cities like Beijing and Shanghai taking a more flexible approach, it could signal to other provinces that an outbreak can be managed without completely sealing off an area.

After Beijing's first Omicron case was reported at the weekend, the woman's office building was sealed off on Sunday and dozens inside were released hours later after Covid-19 tests came back negative.

Such flash lockdowns have become commonplace across China: Last weekend, a Uniqlo store in Shanghai was sealed off for mass testing, leaving customers and staff locked in the premises.

Similarly, at the end of October, about 23,000 people were rounded up in Shanghai Disneyland after a positive case was detected. All were released after tests came back negative. More recently, in Henan province, a woman was trapped with a man in his house after the city was ordered into lockdown. She was at the man's house while on a date.

China has also been successful in its vaccination campaign with over 85 per cent of the population fully inoculated and many already taking booster shots. As at Tuesday, about 2.94 billion doses of locally produced, inactivated virus vaccines have been administered, the National Health Commission (NHC) said.

On Wednesday, China reported the lowest number of Covid-19 infections in two weeks, with 55 local cases, all of whom had confirmed symptoms, NHC data showed.

Experts though remain sceptical about any shift in the country's zero-Covid-19 approach.

"Studies conducted in Hong Kong have shown that people vaccinated and boosted with CoronaVac produce less antibodies than people who have received even one dose of an mRNA vaccine when challenged with the Omicron variant," said Prof Grepin.

Should the country open up too quickly, the hyper infectious Omicron could pose a challenge to the country's healthcare system.

"Omicron makes a very strong case for the mainland to consider adding additional vaccine technologies to its immunisation programme to reduce the strain on its healthcare system when it transitions away from zero-Covid-19," she added.

China is in the final stages of developing its own mRNA vaccine as a deal with BioNTech to produce Covid-19 vaccines for use in the mainland, which was meant to have been approved last year, quietly fizzled out.

Prof Thomas said: "The question, however, remains as to whether or not the authorities will be able to convince (or) make the population take the new doses after such a sustained effort to turn people away from them."

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