Why China continues with its dynamic Zero Covid strategy

The following article from Global Times provides valuable insight into China’s strategy for suppressing the Covid-19 pandemic. Liang Wiannan, a renowned epidemiologist and one of the architects of the Zero Covid approach, outlines the expected consequences of the alternative “lying flat” or “living with the virus” strategy, which relies on gradually building passive/herd immunity. Although China’s overall vaccination rate is high, there is significant variation between regions and age groups. To “live with the virus” at this moment would result in severely stretched medical resources, and would pose a serious threat to patients with underlying diseases, children, seniors, and pregnant women. However, the article makes clear that, as understanding of the virus develops, health authorities are able to restrict the negative side-effects of the suppression strategy with the extensive use of nucleic acid testing.

Why won’t China adopt a “lying flat” strategy in face of Omicron like some Western countries do? Liang Wannian, head of the expert group in China’s epidemic response and disposal leading group, said that to passively respond to Omicron is not China’s option as the country still faces unbalanced medical resources. 

Adopting the dynamic zero-COVID strategy could be seen as “purchasing an insurance for 1.4 billion of Chinese people,” Liang said, noting that it helps avoiding large-scale transmissions and outbreaks, protecting people’s lives, effectively diminishing the loss of life expectancy per capita. 

In countries like the US, life expectancy declined dramatically in 2020 after being hit by the COVID-19 outbreak and continued to decline in 2021, these tragic data are seen as historically unusual drops for the US. 

Some countries chose the so-called “lying flat” strategy by living with the virus to gain herd immunity while China is getting immunity by vaccination, Liang said, noting that although 90 percent of population have been vaccinated, there have been unequal results in different ages and regions. 

“We need to especially increase the vaccination rates among vulnerable groups such as senior citizens and children. Compared to an uncontrollable passive way of getting immunity, we consider active immunity as better choice,” Liang told at a press conference on Friday. 

Also, as China has a very large population, different degrees of regional development and shortages of medical resources, the overall vaccination rates among seniors and children are not high enough. Liang added that if China was to adopt the co-existence strategy in handling the virus, the medical resources would be severely affected, posing a threat to a large number of patients with underlying diseases, children, seniors, pregnant women and so on. 

Graphic: Chen Xia/GT

China has been adopting the dynamic zero-COVID strategy and its ultimate goal is to protect the health and lives of the public while ensuring the normal social and economic activities at the highest possible levels, according to the top health expert. 

As of Thursday, 88.64 percent of the total population in China have been fully vaccinated, and 81.94 percent of the seniors above 60 years old are fully vaccinated, Lei Zhenglong, an official from the epidemic control bureau of China’s National Health Commission, said at the conference. He also urged local authorities across the country to fully recognized the urgency and importance of inoculating senior citizens with the vaccines . 

Li Bin, deputy director of the NHC, said that “faced with the challenges brought on by Omicron, we can’t ensure that there’s no domestically transmitted infections at all but we are confident about promptly adopting a set of effective early measures to handle the flare-ups.” 

“Under the dynamic zero-COVID strategy, we encourage certain regions to explore some good experiences and methods to enhance their capabilities of anti-epidemic work, but a lack of decisive response could exacerbate the transmission speed of the virus in certain locations, which would then affect other areas in the country.” he said. 

Carrying out the strategy also created many benefits for public services, local governance and medical services. For example, treating as many patients as possible is a major part of dynamic zero-COVID strategy, which boosted the preparation for more designated hospitals and quarantine places, Liang said. 

As of Monday, China has nearly 400 Fangcang makeshift hospitals finished and in construction, providing more than 560,000 beds. 

Li also noted that China has entered the fourth stage of anti-epidemic work by carrying out scientific and precise measures in a comprehensive manner. Considered the characteristics of Omicron, local authorities accumulated experiences and improved the measures by taking at-risk groups under control and seeking to cut off transmission chains in the shortest period possible. By conducting the antigen and nucleic acid tests, those new methods could also help with early identification of infected patients. 

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