Chinese vaccine plans raise hope for end of ‘zero-COVID’

A campaign to vaccinate elderly Chinese has raised hopes Beijing could roll back the strict antivirus controls that prompted protesters to call for President Xi Jinping’s resignation, but the country faces daunting hurdles and up to a year of hard work before “zero COVID” can end.

Stock markets rose after the National Health Commission announced the long-awaited campaign on Monday. A low vaccination rate is one of the biggest obstacles to ending curbs that have kept millions of people home, weakened the economy and kept most visitors away from China. The health authorities did not say how long it could take.

A vaccination campaign will take months, and China must also build its hospitals and develop a long-term virus strategy, health experts and economists warn. They say “zero COVID” will likely persist until mid-2023 and possibly as late as 2024.

“China is currently unable to move from its ‘zero-COVID’ policy to a ‘living with COVID’ policy,” said Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics. “Healthcare capacity is very weak.”

China, where the virus was first detected in downtown Wuhan in late 2019, is the latest major country to try to halt transmission entirely, while other countries are relaxing controls and trying to live with the virus, which has at least 6 infections worldwide Killed .6 million people and sickened nearly 650 million.

Chinese protesters accuse the ruling Communist Party of failing to chart a path away from restrictions that have repeatedly closed businesses and schools and suspended access to neighborhoods. The restrictions have kept case numbers lower than other countries, but are considered excessive by the public and scientists.

Families confined at home for up to four months say they don’t have reliable access to food and medicine. Others struggle to get treatment for other medical problems. Authorities have been met with public anger over reports that two children who were in quarantine died after their parents said anti-virus checks had hampered efforts to get emergency medical care.

The protests, the most widespread dissent demonstration in decades, erupted on Friday after a fire killed at least 10 people in northwestern Urumqi. That sparked angry questions online about whether locked doors or other controls blocked firefighters or victims trying to escape. Authorities denied it, but the deaths became a focus of public anger at the human cost of “zero-COVID.”

The ruling party has promised to make the restrictions less disruptive, easing some controls this week after protests in Shanghai, Beijing and at least six other major cities. But party leaders said they would stick to “zero-COVID” and gave no sign of when it might end.

On Wednesday, the Health Commission reported 37,828 new cases in the past 24 hours, including 33,540 with no symptoms. The official death toll stands at 5,233 out of 319,536 confirmed cases, compared to 1.1 million deaths in the United States out of nearly 100 million infections.

Beijing has sought to discredit the protesters by accusing them of working for “foreign forces,” a reference to longstanding complaints that Washington and other Western governments are trying to sabotage China’s economic and political rise.

On Tuesday, the ruling party’s Judiciary Committee pledged to “take firm action against the infiltration and sabotage activities of enemy forces.” His statement promised to realize the spirit of a congress last month where Xi, China’s most powerful figure since at least the 1980s, awarded himself a third five-year term as leader.

The statement made no mention of the protests and repeated routine statements made after such party meetings. But it was a reminder of the ruling party’s determination to get its way and its hostility towards the opposition.

The National Health Commission said its campaign will encourage people over 60 to get vaccinated.

Many avoided vaccines for safety reasons and because their risk of infection was low, with few cases in China.

The commission said it will send out mobile vaccination units to reach people in their 70s and 80s who are unable to leave their homes.

Nine out of ten Chinese were vaccinated, but only 66% of people over 80 received a vaccination, while 40% received a booster shot, the commission said. It was said that 86 percent of those over 60 had been vaccinated.

State media have described unvaccinated elderly as “most at risk” from the virus.

“We hope that elderly friends can actively complete the vaccination as soon as possible,” said a spokesman for the commission, Mi Feng.

China relies heavily on its own Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, along with several others made domestically. It has not approved the mRNA vaccines like the Pfizer shot, although a Chinese company bought the distribution rights in 2020.

Last year, the country’s top infectious disease official acknowledged that these homegrown vaccines offered little protection against COVID-19.

Still, ahead of Tuesday’s announcement, an infectious disease expert on Shanghai’s COVID-19 team expressed confidence that China can emerge from COVID with the right vaccination program.

“Our diagnosis, treatment and vaccines have reached a very high level,” Zhang Wenhong told a medical conference Nov. 18 in the southern city of Haikou. “We are fully capable of finally taming the coronavirus.”

But China’s small, overhauled health system, particularly in the poor, populous rural areas, could be overwhelmed if infections rise from the easing of restrictions.

According to the World Health Organization, China has 4.3 hospital beds per person, barely half the average of eight in neighboring Mongolia, a much poorer country. Japan has 13 and South Korea has 12.5.

“China will never completely lift COVID restrictions like other countries,” said Yu Changping, a respiratory specialist at Wuhan University People’s Hospital.

“The epidemic will not go away in the next three or five years, and maybe never,” Yu said. “It is a long-term task for China’s prevention and control.”

The outbreaks, which began in October, prompted affected communities to close shops and offices. Factories had to isolate workers from outside contacts.

Economists estimate that these areas account for up to a third of China’s economic output. Some forecasts call for China’s annual growth to remain below 3%, less than half of 2021’s 8.1% expansion.

While case numbers are low, “there is definitely a risk that ‘zero-COVID’ will simply fail at this point. It’s spreading fast everywhere,” Williams said. “I think the authorities’ response would be to go back to the playbook and lockdown everywhere from January, February 2020.”

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