China’s Zero Covid trap: Is it pushing the planet to another peril of a deadly Covid wave?

After tumbling, scraping, and crawling through the minefield of the most virulent disease in a century, Covid-19, the world seemed to be recovering, but it was merely a false sense of calm. Amid looming fears of a new Covid outbreak, the world’s attention is focused on China-which may be embracing a massive disaster. Akin to the initial Covid waves that maimed and killed millions, another wave is being experienced in multiple nations. World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the covid pandemic is not over by a long shot. The gravity of the alarm can be gauged by the fact that during covid’s first ascent, WHO was accused of conspiring with China and downplaying the severity until it could no longer. Better than never, WHO has asked China to be upfront in divulging covid related information, particularly concerning the new strain engulfing China. Thanks to its covid related policy, China may still be the ground zero for populating the world with more strains of the deadly virus.

China’s ‘Zero Covid’ policy and a lack of a viable exit policy has become the root cause of the current epidemic wave engulfing China. Massive protests against the draconian covid policy have forced the Chinese authority to loosen restrictions. Loosening strict isolation is unfortunately too late and might be a recipe for disaster. The zero covid policy, which has kept cases and deaths in China to negligible numbers throughout the pandemic, is failing in the face of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. As a result, the country could see a tsunami of cases that would swamp its healthcare system. A report in Nature Medicine paints a scary scenario of the magnitude of the evolving Chinese epidemic; “generate a tsunami of Covid-19 cases” over a 6-month period, with 112 million symptomatic cases, 2.7 million intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, and 1.6 million deaths. Peak demand for ICU beds would hit 1 million, more than 15 times the current capacity. 

The cumulation of multiple inappropriate steps by the Chinese authorities makes this unfortunate scenario a reality. While enlisting most of its health staff to enforce lockdown and mass testing, it ignored mass vaccination programs adopted in most other nations. Mass vaccination and booster dosing significantly lowered covid-related morbidity and mortality. The restricted lockdown initiated in most countries was amply used to generate and vaccinate the population. Because of the draconian lockdowns, the Chinese population never had the opportunity to establish herd immunity.

Furthermore, the efficacy of Chinese vaccinations is far lower than that of vaccines developed by Pfizer/ Moderna or the Serum Institute of India in association with AstraZeneca. While western vaccines have an efficiency of 85-90%, India’s Oxford/ AstraZeneca is around 76%, and Chinese vaccines hover around 60% at best. These Chinese vaccines produced by Sinovac and Sinopharm — protect well against severe infection and death. But while a high percentage of people have had a primary series, which consists of two shots, only about half the country is estimated to have had a third. Moreover, experience worldwide has shown that immunity provided by this Chinese vaccine is both inferior and dwindles much faster. However, despite this, better western vaccines were kept at bay to give less effective Chinese counterparts the predominance as part of Premier Xi’s policy. Unfortunately, this created a highly problematic situation for the whole planet. With its massive population and lack of immunity, China will be a fertile ground to breed multiple other variants of the dangerous SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Repercussions from the Chinese government’s inability to reduce the impact of the virus are not limited to the country’s inhabitants. The ripples are spreading beyond borders, as they did previously. While its neighbors like Japan and South Korea report over a hundred thousand new cases daily, countries like the U.S., Germany, and Italy are again seeing a significant surge in patients. While it is significantly better prepared to deal with an increase in cases this time, India is not immune to the effect if the number of reported instances elsewhere continues to rise. Thankfully, India’s herd immunity & vaccination programs are significantly better than China’s. 95% of the population has at least one dose, while 88% is fully vaccinated. The Indian government has taken cognizance that the pandemic might rear its ugly head again and is taking steps to ensure that they don’t become complacent and let their guard down. However, while the health system may be better equipped this time, knock-on consequences such as economic slump, supply chain disruption, and the emergence of new strains pose a concern.

Notwithstanding the fact that successful anti-covid concoctions like paxlovid may become resistant with newer strains emerging. Will the world put the learnings from the last three years and be able to stave off the worst? If China is any indication, we will never know if the worst is behind us.