China’s ‘zero-COVID’ policy looks to contain the virus at the source by mass testing citizens and imposing lockdowns as and when is necessary.
Official statistics show that this strategy has largely kept case numbers and deaths from COVID-19 low. Moreover, life on the Chinese mainland continues largely as normal.
However, there are of course downsides to zero-COVID, one of the most notable of which for many expats and Chinese nationals with interests overseas is restrictions on international travel.
As China remains committed to the zero-COVID way of life, some countries have opted for a ‘live with the virus strategy.’ The UK and Sweden both removed or are planning to remove all COVID-19 restrictions.
Citizens in said countries are still encouraged to get tested and vaccinated, but lockdowns are rare and infected persons will often self-isolate at home until they are virus-free.
The world is divided on the best way to deal with the virus. One thing we can be sure of is that China cannot keep its borders closed forever and, as more countries opt to snuggle up with COVID rather than keeping it at arms (or more fittingly two meters) length, there are signs that the country is looking to do the same.
Hong Kong is currently dealing with its worst outbreak of COVID-19 since the pandemic began in 2020, so China will remain cautious when it comes to easing restrictions on the mainland. Nonetheless, there are still a few signs to show that the Middle Kingdom is preparing to move away from its current COVID-19 policy.
Vaccines, Drugs & Herd Immunity
Image via Weibo/@财新网]
Dr. Zhang Wenhong, head of Shanghai's COVID-19 treatment team and director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases, has declared “The dawn of our victory over the pandemic has appeared.”
Zhang’s proclamation came on Monday, as he released a study showing a booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine can reduce the rate of severe illness to 0.1%.
The study was the result of his team’s analysis of 2,266 local and imported COVID-19 cases reported in Shanghai over the last six months.
“Even after taking two jabs of the vaccine, there is still a possibility of suffering serious illness and the need for oxygen inhalation,” Zhang said of the findings, adding that “the booster shot of the vaccine can further reduce the rate of severe illness to 0.1% and avoid dangerous symptoms.”
That 0.1% is an important figure. Back in December 2021, Zhong Nanshan, China's leading COVID-19 expert, outlined two conditions the country needs to meet and maintain in order for an opening of the country’s borders.
The first requirement is that deaths from COVID-19 need to fall to a rate of 0.1%.
Zhang Wenhong’s team’s conclusions have been verified by joint studies with Hong Kong medical teams, amid the ongoing COVID-19 resurgence in the special administrative region.
Of the 1,561 deaths in Hong Kong during the city's latest outbreak, the death rate was just 0.04% among patients with two jabs of the vaccine, compared with 1.25% among those without vaccination.
Zhong Nanshan’s second requirement for opening of borders was that the virus’ reproduction rate needs to be within 1 to 1.5. A virus’ reproduction rate is a measure of how many people one patient can infect.
For these specific requirements to be met it is estimated that China will need its population to reach herd immunity. Herd immunity is defined as having 80 to 85% of the population vaccinated against COVID-19.
In January, Zhong said that, with 83% of the country vaccinated, China has built a certain level of herd immunity. And, as of press time, the country has 87% of the population vaccinated.
There are further positive signs, too. In February, China approved Paxlovid, an oral pill for treating COVID-19. The drug has been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization or death from the respiratory disease by almost 90%.
READ MORE: Pfizer COVID-19 Pill Gets China Approval
Back in December 2021, China approved the use of a domestically manufactured COVID-19 drug that is administered through an intravenous drip. It is said to reduce the risk of death and hospitalization from COVID-19 by nearly 80%.
In addition, the UK government announced that those vaccinated with China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines would be recognized as fully vaccinated when traveling to England.
Recognizing international vaccines and medicines points to a more ‘internationally friendly’ way of dealing with the virus. Should borders open soon, it will be much more convenient for those who are recognized as being fully vaccinated.
On March 7, Zhu Tao, China’s chief scientist of the COVID-19 vaccine producer CanSinoBIO and a member of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), urged China to approve more vaccines in the country.
Zhu stated that approving more vaccines or Omicron-specific shots would be needed for herd immunity, which will be vital for the government to lift global travel restrictions.
More International Flights Are Resuming
Image via Wikimedia
On March 3, 2022, China Southern Airlines announced that they would start direct flights between the UK and China on March 17. Not long after the news, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) approved Virgin Atlantic to also trial direct flights.
The flights will run from Shanghai to London and, as of press time, are selling for GBP8,134 (RMB68,873).
This is good news for Chinese nationals, or anyone with a Chinese visa currently in the UK, as they can travel to China without having to board a connecting flight and undergo further COVID-19 testing.
Granted, the somewhat extortionate prices are not ideal. However, should the trials go ahead smoothly, more airlines may follow suit and the price of tickets will likely go down.
Image via Xinhua
A Chinese university in Sichuan has developed a COVID-19 test kit that gives results in 30 minutes, according to Xinhua.
The portable testing kit, which is no bigger than a cigarette lighter, will cost RMB100 when it hits the market. The kit allows the user to conduct a test via a nose swab at home.
Countries that are currently living with the virus have rolled out many at-home nucleic acid tests. They are both convenient and reduce the burden on hospitals.
Should international travel resume, the use of at-home tests will be beneficial for expats who aren’t familiar with Chinese hospitals.
Image via Global Times
Last month, Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that the country is looking at an approach to the virus that is neither zero-COVID nor laissez-faire.
Wu went on to add that should China find a suitable approach to control the disease to allow for international exchanges, it might be possible that international travel will resume.
However, his claims recently took a blow after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang implied that the zero-COVID policy is unlikely to be eased in the future, according to South China Morning Post.
Speaking during the annual government report at the National People’s Congress on Saturday, Li said the country would continue with its current epidemic control measures. These remarks are the highest level of confirmation that zero-COVID will continue.
However, other media sources imply that China has shifted from the zero-COVID policy to ‘dynamic zero’ – where some business can continue operating and citywide lockdowns are avoided where necessary.
Therefore, it is not out of the question that in the future, dynamic zero regulations are also eased.
[Cover image via Wunderstock]