Potential China wave is ‘wild card’ for ending COVID emergency – WHO advises

LONDON, Dec 20 (Reuters) – It may be too early to declare the end of the emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic given a potentially devastating wave is about to hit China, several leading scientists and advisers to the World Health Organization have told Reuters.

Their views mark a shift since China began dismantling its zero-COVID policy last week following a spike in infections and unprecedented public protests. Forecasts suggest the world’s second-largest economy could face an explosion of cases and more than a million deaths next year after abruptly changing course.

China’s zero-COVID approach had kept infections and deaths comparatively low among its 1.4 billion population, but the WHO this year called it unsustainable amid growing concerns about its impact on the lives of citizens and the country’s economy . According to experts, President Xi Jinping’s move last week changed the global picture.

“The question is whether you can call it post-pandemic when such a significant part of the world is actually entering its second wave,” said Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, who sits on a WHO committee charged with advising on the status of the COVID emergency, Reuters said. “It is clear that we are in a completely different phase [of the pandemic]but in my opinion, this upcoming wave in China is a wild card.”

China is stuck between rising Covid-19 cases and deadlocked vaccination rates

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in September that “the end of the pandemic is in sight”. Last week he told reporters in Geneva he was “hopeful” that the state of emergency would end sometime next year.

Most countries have lifted COVID restrictions as the threat of a dangerous new variant of the virus or a large spike in infections has receded in the second half of this year.

Tedros’ previous comments raised hopes that the United Nations may soon remove the PHEIC (Public Health Emergency of International Concern) classification for COVID that has been in place since January 2020.

Koopmans and other members of the WHO Advisory Committee are due to make their recommendation on the PHEIC at the end of January. Tedros makes the final decision and is under no obligation to follow the committee’s recommendation.

Emergency expulsion is the WHO’s highest alert level for a disease outbreak and helps international organizations prioritize funding and support for research, vaccines and treatments. Some global health experts had expected China to wait for the WHO to lift the emergency status before relaxing its own measures to control the pandemic.

“Dr. Tedros needs to strike a balance here,” WHO emergency chief Mike Ryan told reporters in Geneva last week. “I think the world still has… work to do. The work is not done yet.”

Ryan said the WHO advisory committee is likely to meet informally ahead of its official meeting next month, adding that unequal access to vaccines around the world remains another key reason why COVID is likely still an emergency.

He said the rising rate of other seasonal respiratory infections alongside COVID, which is putting pressure on health systems in the northern hemisphere, is also a factor.

RISK OF COVID MUTATIONS

In addition to the risks to China, some global health experts have warned that spreading the virus domestically could also give it room to mutate and potentially create a new variant to match its evolution if allowed to spread to other regions.

Currently, data from China, shared with both the WHO and the virus database GISAID, shows that the variants circulating there are the world’s dominant omicron and its offshoots, although the picture is incomplete due to a lack of complete data.

“The bottom line is not clear [if] the wave in China is variant-driven or just a breakdown in containment,” said Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London.

Anyhow, experts said the focus should be on helping China deal with the surge in case the country asks for help. A key focus should be increasing vaccination for vulnerable populations where rates are low, particularly at the all-important booster dose, they said.

“I don’t think anyone can predict with certainty whether we might see new variants that might worry the rest of the world, but the world should clearly be concerned when people get sick and die [in China]said David Heymann, an infectious disease specialist and WHO adviser who sits on a separate committee from Koopmans.

He added that the situation in China would likely remain an emergency but could pose a regional rather than a global issue. WHO Member States are currently reshaping the rules for global health emergencies to potentially address issues like this one.

Reporting by Jennifer Rigby; Additional reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva; Edited by Michele Gershberg and Josie Kao

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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