European Union member states are to discuss on Wednesday a common response to travelers from China, where the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have spiraled out of control. China is actually facing an explosion in Covid-19 cases after abruptly abandoning its strict “zero-Covid” policy last month, three years after the coronavirus outbreak in the city of Wuhan. So the Chinese are likely to travel again. Will this cause us problems? Can it be compared to the situation in the early 2020s? Virologist Mark van Ranst (KULeuven) is not entirely convinced. He confided in our colleagues from Het Laatste Nieuws.
Will the threat from China resurface in the early 2020s? Are we underestimating it? “The situation was different then. Here and in China. First, we are now well vaccinated in our country, and the immunologically “weak” population is sufficiently stimulated. Also, many of us have already contracted Covid multiple times. We are now in the ninth wave. It sharpened our defenses. Both these things make us more resilient. You can also see this if you look at the ICU admission curve. First there were big waves, now they are waves”.
According to Marc von Ranst, the real problem is China’s credibility with regard to the information given on its epidemiological situation. Especially with regard to the nature of the variations. “The Chinese are lying about the death toll. How can you believe when they talk about variations in circulation? I like to check things out for ourselves by doing random antigen tests on airplanes. Or collect waste water from these planes if possible. (…) In a recent sample taken in Milan, half of the passengers on two flights from China were infected. According to the Financial Times, 250 million Chinese were affected between December 1 and 20. Compared to the total number of infections worldwide since the start of the pandemic – 660 million – this is huge. So the emergence of new variants seems certain to me.”
What types of covid are more contagious or more serious? Or both? “With us, viruses already have to be very intelligent to outwit our immune system. In China, 90% of the population is vaccinated. Of course, with a slightly less effective vaccine. And they prioritized working people in their vaccination program. The oldest and weakest protection is the least. I suppose that’s a risk. But you have to multiply this small risk by 1.4 billion. It’s a risk to be aware of. I’m very concerned about the risk of an epidemic spreading to one-sixth of the world’s population in a few months and immunity in China. We know – it’s from the original Wuhan strain. Seen here – the next variation is going to come out, which may be more infectious or more severe or both.
Fever is here too
The fever is there, too. And earlier than usual. Is this normal? “Until 10-15 years ago, the peak was always around New Year. In recent years, it was more in early February. Even earlier now. We also don’t know why this is happening. Can’t predict. But actually, the measures taken against covid have worked better against flu than against covid. We actually had a flu-free season. That’s why there are more flu cases again now than before. Of course, these additional patients are coming to our hospitals – now there are Covid and flu patients – and people are dying from both of these diseases. Add these together and there will be more deaths this winter than usual. You can have covid and flu at the same time. It’s a bit more serious than if you have one or the other”.
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