China’s retreat from its zero-Covid policy risks putting stress on the country’s health system and creating conditions for new variants that could spread around the world, Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser has warned.
Dr Anthony Fauci urged Beijing to import western Covid vaccines based on messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which are more effective than Chinese-made jabs, to increase the vaccination rate and boost public immunity.
He said a wave of infections would hit China’s large elderly population — about 85mn over-60s have not had a third vaccine dose needed for strong protection against Omicron variants — and people with underlying health conditions particularly hard.
“If they don’t do things like mount and implement a proactive vaccination campaign, and you open up, you are going to have a wave of infections which are certainly going to be associated with a certain degree of severity of disease,” Fauci told the FT’s Global Boardroom event on Wednesday.
Any large wave of infections in China would give the coronavirus an opportunity to mutate into new variants, he added.
“Whenever you have a large wave of transmissions of a virus, you give it ample opportunity to mutate. And when you give a virus opportunity to mutate, that allows it to form potentially new variants. And once you get a brand new variant that could have an impact on the rest of the world.”
Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said on Wednesday that the risk of an uncontrolled wave of Covid infections across China generating the conditions for new variants to flourish was “conceivable” but “quite low”.
“The far bigger concern is that there will be an untold number of deaths and morbidity unless there’s an accelerated and far better vaccination rate, including more effective vaccines, across the population,” he said.
Fauci, who is stepping down from his US government role at the end of the year, added that he had not been in contact with Chinese officials for quite a while. He said Beijing’s strategy earlier in the pandemic had “some flaws” because it did not use lockdowns to vaccinate people.
This week Beijing announced wide-ranging relaxations to President Xi Jinping’s contentious zero-Covid policy as evidence emerged of the economic damage from the pandemic restrictions. But projections by Wigram Capital Advisors, an Asia-focused macroeconomic advisory group, forecast that relatively low vaccination levels among China’s elderly population could lead to up to 1mn deaths if infection rates rise under the relaxed curbs.
Fauci echoed advice issued last week by Ashish Jha, the White House coronavirus co-ordinator, about how China should change its policy and import western vaccines to tackle the virus. China has said it will make the BioNTech vaccine available, but only for foreigners.
“I would suggest that they import western ones [vaccines], particularly the highly effective mRNA vaccines that are used in most countries in the world. Unfortunately, the original Chinese vaccines did not have the level of efficacy of some of the other vaccines,” he said.
Even in the US, Fauci said the number of deaths from Covid was still unacceptably high. He said the colder weather, increased social activity in the coming holiday season and the new Omicron variants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 mean the pandemic is not finished.
“That is not a good formula for declaring it over,” Fauci added. “We still have to be on our guard.”