Vaccines against the mutant strains of COVID-19 should be approved for use as soon as possible, said Gao Fu, former head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in response to the public's concerns about the epidemic situation in China.
China's National Health Commission (NHC) announced on January 14 a total of 59,938 COVID-19-related deaths between December 8, 2022 and January 12 this year.
Considering the risk of local infections of Omicron XBB and its subvariants, and the Spring Festival travel rush involving over 2 billion travelers, the largest in scale over the past three years, the peak of infection may appear in some rural areas due to the return of the villagers, said Gao in an exclusive interview with China Newsweek.
Gao predicted the infection peak may happen between February and March while the peak of severe cases are expected to reach early February. He advised those who have not been inoculated with boosters should get vaccinated as soon as possible.
Gao also advocated that the approval procedures of COVID-19 vaccines should refer to that of the influenza vaccines. If the vaccines come from the same company and use the same technology, as long as they just differ in strain or gene sequence, there's no need for them to go through the whole clinical trial process. Only phase I trial would be enough for approval, he said.
Gao said although it is hard to predict how the pandemic will go, it is very likely that the elderly need to get vaccinated once every six months since COVID-19 may become an endemic disease in the long run.
Despite that breakthrough infections are common, vaccination can still provide protection. Whether it is for the elderly or young people, booster shots are still necessary after infection. The best interval between natural infection and vaccination is between three and six months.
According to Gao, humans getting vaccinated forces the virus to mutate. On the one hand, vaccination can prevent deaths to some extent; on the other hand, the immune barrier created by the vaccines will allow the virus to escape and cause the emergence of new strains.
According to Gao, the XBB variant and the prototype strain that was discovered in early 2020 are completely two different strains. From the perspective of immunology, the Omicron BA.1 variant also differs greatly from XBB variant.
At present, the COVID-19 viruses can be divided into three types. The early prototype strains and the Delta variant are the first type which offer cross-protection. The early Omicron variants and the Omicron XBB variants are the other two types. The so-called reinfection happens when cross-protection between different subvariants is weak.
In terms of preparations to cope with the next possible pandemic wave caused by new subvariants, Gao advocated for the protection of animals and environment and share of data and resources. Early detection and routine surveillance are both very important and investment in related fundamental researches should be increased, said Gao.