China Defends “No-COVID” Strategy, Labels Tedros’ Remarks “Irresponsible” 
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General

China has defended its strict “no-COVID” strategy and called WHO “irresponsible” following critical remarks from the head of the World Health Organization.

WHO Secretary-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a media briefing Tuesday that China’s strategy was no longer sustainable in the face of the more infectious but less lethal Omicron.

“When we talk about the zero-Covid strategy, we don’t think that it’s sustainable, considering the behaviour of the virus now and what we anticipate in the future,” Tedros said.

Internally, Chinese officials have censored media reference to what is a rare public criticism of the global health agency of a particular strategy. 

Externally, officials have insisted that there would be no change to its “zero tolerance” policy against COVID. The policy has prevented millions from leaving their homes and working, including in the city of Shanghai, which has been under a strict lockdown for two months. 

Shanghai’s current largest fangcang, or makeshift hospital, has set aside 900 beds to treat families with children under the age of 18 infected with COVID-19.

Even more disturbing for human rights advocates, people with confirmed COVID cases are  forced to leave their homes and confined to quarantine centers in both mainland China and Hong Kong, with parents even separated from their young children at times – according to both media and first-hand reports to Health Policy Watch.  

“We hope relevant people can view China’s epidemic prevention and control policy in an objective and rational way, learn more about the facts and refrain from making irresponsible remarks,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a news briefing Wednesday.

“The Chinese government’s policy of epidemic prevention and control can stand the test of history, and our prevention and control measures are scientific and effective. China is one of the most successful countries in epidemic prevention and control in the world, which is obvious to all of the international community.”

While cases continue to drop in China, they are spread across multiple provinces. On Wednesday authorities reported 1,905 cases including 302 symptomatic ones. The bulk of cases are still being found in Shanghai. 

WHO comments censored on Chinese internet 

China’s ruling Communist Party, which has strictly controlled all discussion about its controversial approach, said it would tolerate no criticism or questioning of the strategy. 

The WHO comments were not reported by state media, and  any references to Tedros and other WHO officials who spoke about the policy were removed from the Chinese internet soon after being posted.   

After the United Nation’s official press account on China’s Twitter-like Weibo posted Tedro’s comments early on Wednesday morning, it drew a wave of sarcastic comments from Chinese users.

“Resolutely fight against any words and acts that distort, doubt or deny our country’s epidemic prevention and control policies! Down with the World Health Organization!” a top reply said.

“Should the UN’s verified account be blocked this time?” another said.

By mid-morning, the post was no longer accessible on Weibo “due to the author’s privacy setting.” It is unclear under what circumstances the setting was changed.

Lifting “zero tolerance” policies in China may overwhelm health system, says Shanghai study 

The bulk of cases are still being found in Shanghai.

Chinese experts have defended the policy. One study claimed that if the country were to lift its “zero-COVID” strategies, this would result in a “tsunami” of infection and almost 1.6 million deaths, citing in part China’s low vaccination rates of elderly patients. 

The peer reviewed study conducted by Shanghai’s Fudan University, and published in Nature, said a decision by Chinese authorities to lift such measures could see more than 112 million symptomatic cases of Covid-19, five million hospitalisations, and 1.55 million deaths.

“We find that the level of immunity induced by the March 2022 vaccination campaign would be insufficient to prevent an Omicron wave that would result in exceeding critical care capacity with a projected intensive care unit peak demand of 15.6 times the existing capacity,” the paper said.

More than 88% of Chinese people have been fully vaccinated, but immunization is much lower among the elderly. As of 17 March, only half of people aged over 80 in China have been fully vaccinated, and less than 20% of that vulnerable age group have received a booster. Unlike most countries, elderly people were not originally prioritized in China’s vaccination campaigns.  

The study had used a model of SARS-CoV-2 transmission to follow the March 2022 Omicron outbreak in Shanghai to project COVID-19 burden and potential scenarios. It had also considered  vaccine efficacy, waning immunity, different antiviral therapies, and non-pharmaceutical treatments. 

In order to circumvent increasing infections and deaths that would overwhelm the Chinese healthcare system, they recommended providing vulnerable populations with vaccines and other antiviral therapies and maintaining non-pharmaceutical treatments.

“[These strategies] could be sufficient to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system, suggesting that these factors should be points of emphasis in future mitigation policies,” the paper concluded. 

In addition to the challenges posed by Omicron,  the leading Chinese-made vaccine products, based upon conventional vaccine technologies that delivered inactivated virus protein to provoke immunity, have been generally seen to be less efficacious than more advanced technologies, such as the mRNA-based vaccines, in published peer-reviewed studies. 

Image Credits: Zhang Meifang/Twitter, yelingxuan369/Twitter.

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