Customers buy groceries at a supermarket in Urumqi, Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, Nov 28, 2022. (Photo/Xinhua)
Chinese experts have recently stated that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has a lower chance of causing severe illness and death compared with the flu, hence China should continue to optimize its epidemic control policies to protect the vulnerable population.
Tong Zhaohui, a renowned respiratory expert and vice-president of the Beijing Chaoyang Hospital, said in a news briefing on Monday that based on their clinical experience, the Omicron variant mainly targets the upper respiratory tract.
This was a major change from the early strains of the COVID-19 virus, which targeted the lungs and featured higher risk of patients developing severe illness, he said. Although the Omicron variant and its subvariants are much more transmissible than previous strains, they are less severe in terms of pathogenesis, he added.
"Most Omicron infected patients don't develop a high fever. They have low to medium fever, sore throats, coughs and other symptoms in the upper respiratory tract," he said.
Data from around China show that 80 to 90 percent of those infected are mild or asymptomatic cases, Tong said, adding that few have developed into a common type of pneumonia and even fewer are hospitalized.
"In Beijing, I have only seen about three to four patients requiring hospitalization and ventilators due to COVID-19 during the recent outbreaks," he said. "These patients also suffer from underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease."
Tong said the low number of severe cases is due to doctors now having a good understanding of how to treat the illness, a wide vaccine coverage and the public proactively protecting themselves from infection.
Despite the changing circumstances, Tong said vulnerable populations, especially those above the age of 65 and with underlying health conditions, still need protection.
In light of the changes in virulence of transmissibility in recent strains, Wang Guiqiang, director of the Department of Infectious Diseases of Peking University First Hospital, suggested that tiered treatment be implemented for patients with COVID-19.
Ordinary patients can be monitored and treated at home, leaving limited medical resources for high-risk groups with severe illness, he said in an interview with China Central Television which aired on Tuesday.
Gao Fu, former director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview on Sunday that the objective of future COVID-19 epidemic control should focus on managing the disease and treating patients, rather than eliminating the virus.
"We need to make small and continuous changes in our control measures," he said, adding it is important for the scientific community to increase its effort to educate the public about the disease to combat misinformation.
Zhang Wenhong, head of the infectious disease department at Shanghai Huashan Hospital Affiliated to Fudan University, said in an academic conference on Saturday that the key to overcoming the epidemic is to protect the vulnerable population and establish an immunity barrier through vaccination.
According to a study conducted by Zhang's team on the outbreak of the Omicron variant in Shanghai from March to April, those who had received two doses of vaccine or received a third booster were 76 percent less likely to develop a severe illness compared to those with no or incomplete inoculations.
In addition to old age, chronic kidney disease, cardiovascular disease and tumors can also make COVID-19 patients more susceptible to severe symptoms, hence it is important for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions to get vaccinated, he said.