Coronavirus: China's top expert writes of eventual return to normal, but article deleted

In an interview with Reuters, Zhong Nanshan, an 83-year-old epidemiologist, speaks fondly of doctor Li Wenliang
PHOTO: Screengrab/Reuters

China’s top Covid-19 expert Zhong Nanshan has said the country cannot pursue “dynamic zero-Covid” in the long term and should reopen to bring social and economic development back to normal, and adapt to global reopening.

The editorial titled “Strategies for reopening in the forthcoming Covid-19 era in China” was published in the English-language National Science Review journal on April 6. A Chinese translated copy of the article was published on mainland news sites on Monday but has since been deleted.

“China needs to reopen so as to normalise socio-economic development and adapt to global reopening. Prolonged dynamic zeroing cannot be pursued in the long run,” Zhong wrote with co-author Guan Weijie, an associate researcher with the State Key Laboratory of Respiratory Disease in Guangzhou.

They said the community-based dynamic zero-Covid policy had been key in minimising Covid-19 cases and deaths in mainland China.

“The rapid roll-out of vaccinations, as well as herd immunity, have formed the fundamentals of the ‘total opening’ of some developed countries. This, however, does not necessarily justify rapid and total opening in mainland China,” they wrote.

“Omicron confers a considerably higher mortality risk than seasonal influenza, and would likely result in social instability and the emergence of other novel variants with a greater infectivity.”

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The scientists said that for China to “reopen in an orderly and effective manner”, the country should enforce nationwide vaccination, especially to protect the elderly, and boost with vaccines of different technologies, a method that has been used to “markedly enhance protection against the Omicron variant”.

They said the country should also use rapid antigen tests to identify cases in a timely manner and should treat patients with Covid-19 medications and neutralising antibodies to reduce the risk of infection progressing to critical illness and death.

In February, Chinese regulators approved the mixing of domestic vaccines as boosters to improve immunity against Covid-19, and added two more Chinese-developed shots to the booster roster.

Last month, the country also made rapid antigen tests available to the public for the first time. The tests could be used by anyone for early detection, but were particularly recommended for those in central isolation or at local medical clinics, according to the National Health Commission.

China approved its first Covid-19 treatment in December — an antibody cocktail developed by Brii Biosciences that must be administered intravenously. The drug regulator also approved emergency use of Pfizer’s Covid-19 antiviral pill Paxlovid in February.

The scientists wrote in the journal that more scientific studies on the coronavirus latency and recovery periods could help policymakers decide the minimal quarantine period and how best to manage reinfection after a patient is discharged from hospital.

They added that the country could carry out pilot tests in designated areas and adjust policies according to the epidemic characteristics of imported cases to “verify the outcomes of the transition towards safe and orderly social reopening in China”.

China is fine-tuning its Covid-19 border restrictions to shorten quarantine for incoming travellers to Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xiamen and other cities, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The four-week pilot scheme — also covering Chengdu, Dalian, Ningbo, Suzhou and Qingdao — was launched on April 11 to cut quarantine from 14 to 10 days for incoming travellers and close contacts of Covid-19 patients.

People in isolation will have six PCR and six rapid antigen tests in that period, which also includes seven days of health monitoring at home.

The eight cities were chosen based on the number of incoming flights, the quantity of imported goods and Covid-19 control capacity, according to a document outlining the trial.

As for local outbreaks, lockdowns of quarantined areas could be lifted after 10 consecutive days without a positive test result, instead of two weeks as previously required, it said.

Authorities would analyse and compare the isolation and test information of incoming travellers and close contacts who had tested positive for the coronavirus since December to assess trial results.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.