As China faces a spike in Covid-19 infections, there is concern about the emergence of new variants and subtypes. Could this wave be a game changer for the epidemic beyond China’s borders, as authorities announced Monday that mandatory quarantines would end upon arrival in the country?
It is the last vestige of politics “Zero Covid” in China. Health officials announced on Monday, December 26, that most of the strict health restrictions in place in the country from 2020 will be lifted after being lifted on December 7. End of mandatory quarantine Upon reaching its limit. From January 8, only a negative test within 48 hours is sufficient.
The announcement immediately sparked jubilation in the country, with many Chinese rushing to book flights abroad. But the country has been struggling for weeks For a massive explosion of pollutionThe announcement is causing concern abroad, and raises the question: Will this wave of Covid-19 have health consequences beyond China’s borders?
The BF.7 variant was isolated
According to several American media outlets, including The Financial Times, citing the deputy director of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that as of December 1, China had infected 250 million people, or 18% of the total population. A number are not officially confirmed and cannot be verified – local health authorities have put an end to formal screening tests. To publish statistics on epidemics – but combined with the numerous testimonies of submerged hospitals and crematoriums, confirms the extent of this pollution wave.
Experts posit several factors to explain this situation. First, a large portion of the population has never been exposed to Covid-19 and is naturally immune to it. Then, “elderly and vulnerable populations vaccinate less or worse: 60% of people over 80 have received two doses or less,” explains Antoine Flahalt, an epidemiologist at the University of Geneva. However, several studies have shown that Chinese vaccines, which are exclusively used throughout the country, are only effective at three doses.
To this, the epidemiologist adds another parameter. “Omicron’s derivative BF.7 subvariant will be the main cause of this wave”. It was detected for the first time in Belgium last May, and has since been detected in France, the United States, England or Germany, and is particularly contagious.
“BF.7 has an R0 (reproduction rate of the virus) of 10 to 18.6. In other words, an infected person will spread the virus to an average of 10 to 18.6 people, compared to an average of 5.08 for Omicron,” he explains. “So this is a highly transmissible strain of the virus under the current conditions of low immunity in the Chinese population.”
For now, BF.7 represents only 0.99% of sequencing in France, According to the Cove-Spectrum instrument and 1.5% of infections in the United States. “This number may actually increase,” confirms Mircea Zofonia, a lecturer in epidemiology at the University of Montpellier. “But that’s not a concern. Europe has already experienced several waves of Covid-19 Associated with Omicron and we have the best immunizations. We have decided to live with it now.”
Fear of new types
For the two experts, the main concern is not BF.7, but rather itself To see a new variation emerge This outbreak in China. “Each infection provides an opportunity for viral transformation, so there is a possibility that a sub-variant or variant of SARS-Cov2 will appear”, recalls Mircea Sofonea. “We have to prepare for it,” says Antoine Flahault, “the risk of the virus spreading in a country of 1.4 billion people and a population with low immunity is obvious.”
“In the short term, the most likely hypothesis is that if a sub-variant appears, it is a derivative of Omicron,” continues Mircea Sofonia. “Like BF.7, It will be added to the existing ones Certainly does not pose a real danger to well-immunized Western populations.”
“The real fear is that a distant variant of Omicron will appear that will escape our immune system, both natural and vaccine”, he warns. As a reminder, for a new variant to prevail, like Delta vs Omicron, it must be more infectious than its predecessors, or it must escape the population’s immune system.
In particular, if experts agree that the peak of pollution in Beijing has already passed, it will take months for the situation to return to normal across the country. “China has to experience as many successive waves as the West,” continues Antoine Flahalt. “However, even outside of what is happening in China, the emergence of new, more transmissible and potentially more virulent variants should be a major concern everywhere and justify that we have not completely abandoned our defenses,” he stresses.
And, in addition to this threat, the health situation will certainly have economic consequences with the slowdown of production chains in the country that is the world’s factory, as it already is in 2020. More worryingly, officials have announced. Demanding production by some drug companies could further worsen drug shortages affecting many Western countries this winter. In 2020, 50% of the world production of paracetamol is concentrated in the country.
Introduce border controls?
Faced with concerns over the reopening of China’s borders, neighbors India and Japan have already decided to impose checks on travelers from China within their borders. US “considers taking similar steps”, according to officials. A move that Antoine Flahalt says he favors in Europe. “It would be good to quickly restore health control throughout the Schengen area, aimed at testing and sequencing the viruses identified from all travelers from China. Only in this way can we anticipate the “arrival of these new types that we fear” and this will allow us to better anticipate the measures that will eventually be taken,” he stressed.
Mircea Sofonea, for his part, calls for the continued use of ban gestures above all else. “We must not forget that we are Chinese The first victims of this situation“, he concludes. “The zero covid strategy is unacceptable and today they are paying for its sudden and ill-prepared lifting. Their government should take immediate action to avoid health problems.
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