Risk of dangerous new Covid variant in China ‘pretty low’, US health expert says

BEIJING — A dangerous new variant of Covid-19 is unlikely to spread in China, said Dr. Chris Murray, Seattle-based director of a health research center at the University of Washington.

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

Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, pointed out that there were probably billions of omicron infections worldwide this year, but no new Covid variants emerged, only sub -variants of omicron.

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

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

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

China could see up to 25,000 daily deaths from Covid-19 later in January, casting a shadow over the start of the first Lunar New Year festivities without pandemic restrictions.
Travelers at Beijing Capital International Airport on Friday. Bloomberg via Getty Images

This month, Beijing suddenly eased many Covid-related movement restrictions. On Monday, authorities also announced that they would scrap the inbound quarantine from Jan. 8, while resuming passport processing for Chinese citizens wishing to travel abroad for tourism.

The United States, Japan and a few other countries later announced new Covid testing requirements for travelers from China this week.

Need for hospitalization, death data

Murray said an outright travel ban, if proposed, “wouldn’t make sense” and he 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 first sign of a new variant is actually going to be a change in the hospitalization or death rate associated with Covid, and not just many infections, because we know omicron does that,” he said. declared.

China’s National Health Commission said on Sunday it would stop publishing daily information on Covid infections and deaths. However, China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention has maintained daily reports – which, along with hospital discharges, show only thousands of new Covid infections per day and a handful of deaths. Covid tests are no longer mandatory in China.

Statements on the Chinese Center for Disease Control’s website show that its director Shen Hongbing held online meetings this month with his US counterpart and the head of Britain’s Health Security Agency.

Covid risks

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

Genome research shows it’s still possible for a mutation to emerge and cause more severe disease, Murray said. “I think it would be unwise for us to assume that all variants are going to look like omicron.”

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

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