Omicron puts China’s zero-covid strategy to the test

Over the past two years, China has used some of the strictest measures anywhere to keep Covid-19 out, and it has long managed to keep the number down. But as Omicron poses the biggest challenge since the start of the pandemic, the country looks more encapsulated by its own formula.

Beijing has repeatedly pointed to Western countries, where the virus has run rampant as warning examples. But as the Omicron variant spreads inside China ahead of the February Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022, an unpleasant reality emerges: The country’s ability to keep the virus in check has meant low levels of natural immunity. Vaccination rates are high, but how effective Chinese vaccines are against Omicron is still in doubt.

China has stuck to its “zero-covid” strategy despite a rising toll on its population and economy, and as other countries have moved away from lockdowns. The highly contagious Omicron variant will be harder to deal with, say health experts, which is likely to lead to more frequent and prolonged restrictions.

Tianjin, China, where a road was deserted on Monday, is conducting another round of testing everyone in the city with 14 million people.


Photo:

Associated Press

“Covid-zero is great when you’re at zero, but when you’re not, it can be very disruptive to society,” said Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health.

Central government officials show no intentions to change their approach to Covid-19, which they continue to see as a success amid the Omicron rise, according to officials familiar with the government’s mindset. Beijing is concerned that any easing of controls could lead to a major outbreak of coronavirus cases due to the relatively low effectiveness of Chinese vaccines and remaining pockets of unvaccinated people in the countryside, some officials said.

“An eruption would put enormous pressure on the country’s resources,” one official said, referring to China’s limited health facilities, especially in rural areas.

On Sunday, authorities in Tianjin – a port city half an hour from Beijing by high-speed train – said they had found two locally transmitted Omicron infections. A day later, two people about 300 miles away in Henan Province were linked to the same transmission chain.

The discoveries started a now well-known choreography: lockdown, mass testing and warnings of further restrictions on the way.

From mass testing to lockdowns, China is on high alert to keep coronavirus at bay ahead of the Winter Olympics. The WSJ is examining the zero-Covid strategy in the city of Xi’an to see how it has triggered setbacks from residents and affected chip manufacturers. Photo: Shao Rui / Zuma Press, Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

Tianjin suspended the train and bus connection to Beijing and on Wednesday embarked on a second round of testing everyone in the city with 14 million people. Henan has closed most schools and banned public gatherings, including temple masses and other festivities ahead of the lunar new year. Several 99 million local governments in the province have issued orders to stay at home.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has moved toward a more top-down approach to any issue, and local officials who are afraid of being punished if they allow Covid-19 to gain a foothold tend to err on the side of aggressive interpretation. of the central government’s political guidelines.

The burdens that the resulting measures place on communities throughout China were exhibited in the city of Xi’an, whose 13 million people have been ordered to stay in their homes for nearly three weeks. Some complained about lack of access to food. The story of a woman who lost her unborn child after waiting outside a hospital for hours due to a lack of a valid Covid-19 test triggered a wave of anger online in response to the harsh measures.

A checkpoint outside a block of flats in Xi’an, China, where people have been locked up in their homes.


Photo:

Associated Press

Two other Xi’an women told similar stories online, while others said family members with chest pain had been subjected to fatal delays, incidents that appeared to mark a turning point in public patience with inflexible zero-Covid policies. The confusion surrounding access to health care caused a rare and direct public admission of wrongdoing. At a press conference, Liu Shunzhi, head of Xi’an Health Commission, bowed in apology to the residents. “We are deeply saddened,” he said.

Xi’an’s blockade is one of the largest since the shutdown of Wuhan in early 2020, and one of many carried out across China since the beginning of the pandemic. Ruili, a city of about 200,000 inhabitants on China’s border with Myanmar, has endured at least four lockdowns in just over a year, with residents spending months at a time in isolation. In October, more than 30,000 visitors were locked inside Shanghai Disneyland and forced to undergo Covid-19 testing after a visitor tested positive.

Visitors were tested for Covid-19 at Disneyland in Shanghai last year after a visitor tested positive.


Photo:

Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Economists are increasingly citing the potential for Omicron to take a bigger toll on China’s declining growth this year, as restrictions and the spread of infections keep many from working and make others reluctant to spend money.

In a note on January 3, Eurasia Group called China’s zero-Covid policy – and its possible inability to curb infections – its greatest risk for the year, saying that continuation would similarly lead to greater economic disruption, more governmental intervention and a more dissatisfied population contrary to the widespread rumor by state media that China has defeated Covid-19.

China’s recent Covid-19 flare-up causes factories to close and clog ports, raising fears of global supply disruptions. The world’s third-busiest container port in Ningbo-Zhoushan, near Shanghai, risks exacerbating the backlog after more than two dozen Covid-19 infections were confirmed in the surrounding area. In August, the port was temporarily closed following the detection of a single case.

Tests for Covid-19 in Beijing this week.


Photo:

Andrea Verdelli / Getty Images

China does not face any easy choices. About 86% of the population is fully vaccinated, but the most common vaccines, developed by Sinopharm and Sinovac, use inactivated viruses. These are generally thought to be less effective against Omicron infections than the mRNA vaccines developed by Moderna Inc.

and by Pfizer Inc.

with BioNTech SE.

A Sinovac spokeswoman referred to a preliminary study published in December that showed that three doses of its vaccine provided some protection against Omicron, but two were less effective. The study, which has not been peer reviewed, was based on blood samples from 120 participants in China. Sinopharm could not be reached for comment.

Zhong Nanshan, China’s top Covid-19 expert who has defended the zero-Covid policy, said last week that China has in theory achieved flock immunity through its high level of vaccinations. He acknowledged that Chinese vaccines have been less protective against Covid-19 compared to mRNA vaccines, but said that based on studies involving the Delta variant, they are still able to limit serious disease. He said about 24% of China’s population has received a booster shot.

China is speeding up its efforts to produce domestic mRNA vaccines and drugs for Covid-19, said an official familiar with the matter.

A vaccination site in Beijing.


Photo:

Chen Zhonghao / Xinhua / Getty Images

China has reported a total of 104,189 Covid-19 cases and 4,636 deaths due to the virus. China lists both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases, but only includes the former in its official count of confirmed cases.

A model from Peking University late last year expected new daily cases to peak at 600,000 if China were to abandon its zero-Covid strategy.

Some health experts said that China could potentially address Omicron with various mitigating measures because Omicron generally causes less serious illness, China’s vaccination rate is high, and doctors there, as worldwide, now have better information on how to treat Covid- 19.

“The world is in another phase of the pandemic,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the South African Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation. He referred to the experience in South Africa, which emerged after a recent increase in Omicron cases with manageable results.

Even if China were willing to take the risk, it would be difficult to control public perceptions in a country accustomed to living in the relative security of the bubble created by the harsh restrictions. “State and social media have been focused on highlighting the threat from the virus and at times exaggerating how serious the problem has been in Western countries,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Observers say that if China were to turn away from its zero-Covid strategy, it would likely be after the Winter Olympics, which close on February 20, and before a Communist Party congress on a date yet to be revealed in the fall. . . China’s leaders would likely try to construct the shift without what is known as an exit wave, such as the rise in infections now seen in countries like Australia.

The Winter Olympics in Beijing begin next month.


Photo:

FABRIZIO BENSCH / REUTERS

Before then, Beijing is taking no chances, creating a “closed circle” around the events and going so far as to warn residents not to try to help Olympic vehicles, even if they are involved in a traffic accident, and instead wait for authorities to respond. due to Covid-19 control.

The intense focus on eradicating Covid-19 cases at all costs is what worries people like a Xi’an man locked inside the home, with the oranges he stockpiled when the restrictions were announced weeks ago, and now begins to rot. He is in his 30s and identified himself by his last name, Zhang, and supports the overall Covid-19 policies, but has concerns about the use of one scale for each outbreak.

“Without the shutdown and the control measures, the situation would have been much worse than now,” he said. In the early days of Xi’an’s lockdown, he could still see from his window people walking their dogs. “But suddenly the local government switched to a one-policy-pass-all-state: it was all about Covid control, without taking special circumstances into account at all.”

Write to Natasha Khan at natasha.khan@wsj.com, Liyan Qi at liyan.qi@wsj.com and Keith Zhai at keith.zhai@wsj.com

Corrections and reinforcements
About 86% of China’s population has been fully vaccinated, mostly with vaccines developed by Sinopharm and Sinovac. An earlier version of this article erroneously said that only vaccines from Sinovac and Sinopharm have been approved for use in China. (Corrected January 12)

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