GENEVA — Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infections were exploding in China well before the government’s decision to abandon its strict “zero-COVID” policy, a World Health Organization (WHO) director said on Wednesday, quashing suggestions that the sudden reversal caused a spike in cases.
The comments by the WHO’s emergencies director Mike Ryan came as he warned of the need to ramp up vaccinations in the world’s No. 2 economy.
Speaking at a briefing with media, he said the virus was spreading “intensively” in the nation long before the lifting of restrictions.
“There’s a narrative at the moment that China lifted the restrictions and all of a sudden the disease is out of control,” he said.
“The disease was spreading intensively because I believe the control measures in themselves were not stopping the disease. And I believe China decided strategically that was not the best option anymore.”
Beijing started pivoting away from its signature “zero-COVID” policy this month after protests against the economically damaging curbs championed by President Xi Jinping.
The sudden loosening of restrictions has sparked long queues outside fever clinics in a worrying sign that a wave of infections is building, even though official tallies of new cases have trended lower recently as authorities eased back on testing.
In its most recent COVID report for the week to Nov. 27, the WHO said China had reported increasing hospitalizations for four consecutive weeks.
“So the challenge that China and other countries still have is: are the people that need to be vaccinated, adequately vaccinated, with the right vaccines and the right number of doses and when was the last time those people had the vaccines,” said Dr. Ryan.
The elation in China that met the changes in policy allowing people to live with the virus has quickly faded amid mounting concerns about surging infections because the population lacks “herd immunity” and has low vaccination rates among the elderly.
WHO’s senior epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said the UN agency was providing technical advice to China and Ryan said there were open channels.
Among the first major announced deals in which a Western drugmaker will supply China with COVID therapies, China Meheco Group Co. Ltd. said on Wednesday it would import and distribute Pfizer’s oral COVID-19 treatment Paxlovid.
Earlier in the briefing, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was “hopeful” that the pandemic, which has killed more than 6.6 million people since it emerged in Wuhan, China, three years ago, will no longer be considered a global emergency some time next year. — Reuters