Risk of a dangerous new Covid variant in China is ‘quite low,’ U.S. health expert says

Risk of a dangerous new Covid variant in China is ‘quite low,’ U.S. health expert says

Pictured here on Dec. 28, 2022, is the fever clinic turned gymnasium in Fuzhou, Fujian province.

Wang Dongming | China News Service | Getty Images

BEIJING – It is unlikely that a dangerous new variant of Covid-19 is spreading in China, said Dr. Chris Murray, Seattle-based director of a health research center at the University of Washington.

His comments Friday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” come after U.S. health officials warned this week of the possibility of a new Covid variant emerging in China’s nationwide outbreak — and how Beijing’s lack of transparency could delay detection of public health risks.

Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, noted that there are likely to be billions of omicron infections worldwide this year, but no new Covid variants have emerged, only omicron subvariants.

“That’s why I would lower the risk that there is a new dangerous variant in China,” he said. He noted that “some very special characteristics” would be needed for a new variant to emerge and replace the omicron.

The variant was first discovered in South Africa more than a year ago. Omicron is much more transmissible, but causes less severe disease, than when Covid first appeared in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.

Unlike most of the world, the wave of Covid in China this month is affecting a population of 1.4 billion people who are mostly being infected for the first time. Only locally produced vaccines are widely available to locals.

Beijing this month suddenly relaxed many Covid-related restrictions on movement. On Monday, authorities also said they would lift the entry quarantine starting Jan. 8, while resuming passport processing for Chinese citizens who want to travel abroad for tourism.

The US, Japan and several other countries this week then announced new Covid testing requirements for travelers from China.

Need for hospitalization, death records

Murray said an outright travel ban, if proposed, “would not make sense” and that it “would not impose testing requirements”.

“The argument being made is that we need more transparency about what’s going on in China,” Murray said.

“The earliest sign of some new variants will actually be a change in the hospitalization or death rate associated with Covid, and not just a lot of infections, because we know omicron does that,” he said. .

Read more about China from CNBC Pro

China’s National Health Commission said on Sunday it would stop releasing daily information on Covid infections and deaths. However, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention has been keeping daily reports – which, along with hospital discharges, show only thousands of new Covid infections per day and a small fraction of deaths. Testing for Covid is no longer mandatory in China.

Publications on the website of China’s disease control center show that its director Shen Hongbing held online meetings this month with his American counterpart and the head of the UK’s Health Safety Agency.

The dangers of Covid

As for the theory that viruses adapt to keep their hosts alive, Murray cautioned that it “applies over quite a long time, not months or years.”

Genomic research shows that it is still possible for a mutation to emerge that causes more severe disease, Murray said. “I think it would be unwise for us to just assume that all variants will be like omicron.”

A study published in Nature Medicine in November also found that getting infected with Covid-19 more than once increases the risk of organ failure and death.

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