China is fighting the biggest surge in coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, with millions under lockdown and the healthcare system under pressure. One of the last countries sticking to a zero-Covid strategy, China aims to stamp out every infection with strict lockdowns and by sending all cases to secure facilities.
Stories of desperation are emerging from several Chinese cities, including Shanghai. Affected by the continuing epidemic, in the past weeks several cities in East and South China have announced lockdowns and the temporary closure of expressway exits and service areas. In Shanghai and its neighbouring provinces Jiangsu and Zhejiang almost 200 expressway exits and service areas have been closed. Some other expressway entrances and exits are under normal operation, but have also put heavy restrictions on truck drivers, creating major supply chain disorders.
Since April 2020, China has emphasized its strategy of “Zero COVID”. While the strategy allowed most people to lead relatively normal lives for the best part two years, the wave of Omicron infections in major China cities has put this strategy to the test. Due to the dynamic pandemic situation and the prolonged closure of the country’s borders to the rest of the world, China’s COVID-19 policies are set to evolve.
The main reasons for China’s zero tolerance are concerns for a surge in severe cases that could overload the public healthcare system and the risk to the most vulnerable sections of the population, such as the elderly and children below the age of three.
At the peak of the pandemic, patient demand for ICU beds in a number of countries reached >80 per million residents, significantly higher than China’s equivalent ICU supply at 44 beds. China has a total vaccination rate of 88%, with an increasing number of the population having been vaccinated with two or three jabs.
Currently, China has approved seven vaccines (incl. five inactivated, one adenovirus vector vaccine and one recombinant protein vaccine). Clinical results show relatively low protection rates for China-approved COVID-19 vaccines vs. overseas vaccines due to different technologies. In early April 2022, two Chinese mRNA vaccines were granted IND approvals from the National Medical Products Administration (NMPA).
The timing of China’s re-opening to the world for regular travel is difficult to predict. Social stability remains the highest priority in China before the National Congress, which is set to happen in October-November 2022. We hope that early 2023 China will start reconnecting to the rest of the world. However, it will be necessary to have effective and low-cost therapeutics in stock sufficiently to tackle future Covid-waves. Additionally, prompt and low-cost early screening mechanisms are to be implemented nationwide.
Despite the current spikes in infections in different regions in China, recently it was reported that China is trying out reduced quarantine times for overseas arrivals and close contacts of positive cases in eight cities, including Chengdu, Shanghai, Suzhou, Xiamen, Qingdao, Dalian, Guangzhou and Ningbo. Quarantine times in these selected cities are reduced to 10 days from 14 days currently, plus seven days of health monitoring with regular testing.
China’s re-opening is crucial for different reasons. First, it is desperately needed for the world’s second-largest economy to keep its GDP growth at a decent level. Given the size of China’s consumer base and the current international instability, any slowdown in the domestic Chinese economy also has consequences for global markets. Furthermore, it will give chance to foreign businesses to re-enter China and meet customers and suppliers after more than two years.
Article written by @Bart Horsten, Managing director of Horsten International and Board member of the BCECC