A resident of Hohhot, capital of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, takes a nucleic acid test after new COVID-19 cases emerged in the city. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
China must adhere to its dynamic zero-COVID strategy to protect its vulnerable population and cope with uncertainties associated with emerging variants and the lingering effects of the disease, public health experts said on Thursday.
Liang Wannian, a member of the National Health Commission's virus control expert panel, said that completely ending the epidemic in China would require increasing mass vaccinations among the elderly, strengthening healthcare systems and developing more effective vaccines and drugs.
While Omicron is believed to be a less severe variant, Liang's comment came at a time when waves of outbreaks were reported across the Chinese mainland following a major national holiday.
"Although the fatality rate (the number of deaths per confirmed cases) of Omicron is lower than that of the original strain and other variants, it can lead to large numbers of infections due to its fast and stealthy transmission and ability to evade immunity," he said at a news briefing.
"As a result, the absolute number of deaths across a certain population would still be quite large, and the disease's population-mortality risk remains higher than that of influenza," he said, adding that Omicron can also threaten to overstretch local medical systems and result in excessive deaths.
Liang said China's large populations of elderly and people with chronic illnesses are at particularly high risk of severe symptoms and death if Omicron were left to spread unchecked.
"If we relax our virus-control measures, there is bound to be a spike in new infections, and even many serious cases and deaths. We cannot stand to see such a severe consequence," he said.
China has suffered the least from the pandemic among major countries thanks to its scientific and effective measures.
Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said China, which is home to 18.3 percent of the global population, contributes only 0.16 percent of COVID-19 cases and 0.08 percent of related deaths worldwide.
He added that the disease's incidence rate on the Chinese mainland is only 1/483rd of United States', and its mortality rate is nearly 1/785th of that of the US. "There is no reason to cast doubt on our (COVID-prevention) strategy," he said.
The current dynamic zero-COVID strategy emphasizes prompt and precise detection and control of new outbreaks to avert sustained transmission and large-scale outbreaks, and achieve a balance between virus control and socioeconomic development, said experts.
As Omicron continues to sweep across the globe as the dominant strain, Liang said it surely is not the last variant to emerge.
"The pathogenicity and virulence of new variants are unclear, so we should stick to the current approach to deal with the unpredictability," he said.
Research has also demonstrated that quite a number of recovered patients exhibit long-term symptoms, such as fatigue, breathing difficulties and cognitive impairment.
Wu, the chief epidemiologist, said, "Adherence to the dynamic zero-COVID approach not only enables containment of large outbreaks but also prevents most people from getting infected and suffering from long-COVID symptoms."
National Administration of Disease Prevention and Control official Lei Zhenglong also urged localities to improve the precision of epidemic control measures and reduce their impact on normal lives.
Liang, the expert, said China has seen flickers of hope in ending the epidemic, but more needs to be done and no specific timeline is determined.
"We should boost mass vaccination, especially among the elderly, and strengthen our disease control and treatment capability," he said.
"Meanwhile, we should enhance efforts to develop more effective vaccines and more accessible and easy-to-use therapeutics, and ramp up their production and supply."