Chinese virus expert launches scathing attack on Covid Zero push

People scan a QR code to register before getting a Covid-19 test in Beijing, on Nov 4, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - A top Chinese virologist warned the country risks economic collapse if local officials continue to try to wipe out all traces of Covid-19, marking the most vocal criticism of China's so-called Covid Zero approach by one of its own experts.

Prof Guan Yi, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, disparaged China's effort to eliminate sporadic flareups of the virus through mass testing and lengthy quarantines.

In the wide-ranging interview with Hong Kong-based Phoenix Satellite TV, he urged a reality-check on how well an extensive vaccination drive helped the world's most populous country build immunity to Covid-19.

"We don't stand a chance if we pursue a target of zero Covid," said Prof Guan, who has been dubbed the "virus hunter" by the Chinese media for his work on identifying the animal origins of the coronaviruses that caused Sars and Mers.

"The virus is here today, just like flu. That's a fact, whether people like it or not."

The ability to break away from Covid Zero hinges on the effectiveness of the vaccines and the cost of controlling the virus, Prof Guan said. It's crucial for China to figure out how much protection its mass vaccination program has afforded the population, he said.

"Let's not roll out nucleic acid testing for everyone at every turn," he said. "I think it's testing antibodies that matters. Everybody should know where their immunity is at."

Prof Guan's comments are a rare, high-profile criticism from within the country's elite of its lingering adherence to Covid Zero, which other adherents like Singapore and Australia have abandoned as the more transmissible Delta variant makes it almost impossible to maintain.

The criticism follows on the heels of an emotional plea for support made by the former vice mayor of a border town called Ruili in southwestern China, where repetitive lockdowns after Covid-19 incursions from Myanmar are threatening livelihoods and exhausting local officials.

Officials in China have said they still consider squashing domestic flareups with aggressive curbs a better option for people's safety and the economy's health than reopening borders and easing restrictions.

The country will maintain stringent curbs at least through spring given the outbreaks beyond its borders, health officials said in Beijing on Saturday (Nov 6).

It is also doubling-down on vaccinations. More than 75 per cent of the country is fully protected and authorities are rolling out booster shots to all adults.

Immunisations are now available to children as young as three years old.

Still, Prof Guan questioned the impact of vaccination in China when local governments will not relent on controls such as quarantine and temperature screening.

While taking temperatures is ubiquitous across the country, the virologist said that is a "lagging defence" because infected people can spread the virus without showing any symptoms.

"Don't blame the virus for being stealthy," he said. "We just consider ourselves smarter than we really are."

Instead, Prof Guan said the country must develop a clearer understanding about how the homegrown vaccines are working against new variants of the virus. It should "kick out vaccines that have become ineffective", he said.

China's leading shots, from state-backed Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech Ltd, use traditional vaccine technology. While clinical trials show them to be effective at preventing severe cases of Covid-19, hospitalisations and deaths, they are less reliable than Western mRNA shots at stopping transmission and reducing overall case counts.

"One can tell what's good or bad through comparison," Prof Guan said. "If we fail to recognise our shortcomings, we lack the incentive to make progress."

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.