The risk of a dangerous new Covid variant in China is “quite low,” says the US health expert
A fever clinic converted into a high school is seen here on December 28, 2022 in Fuzhou, Fujian province.
Wang Dongming | China news service | Getty Images
BEIJING – A dangerous new variant of Covid-19 is unlikely to spread in China, said Dr. Chris Murray, director of a health research center at the University of Washington in Seattle.
His Friday comments on CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” come as US health officials this week warned of the possibility of a new variant of Covid emerging in China’s nationwide outbreak – and how Beijing’s lack of transparency is delaying identifying public health risks could.
Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, pointed out that there have probably been billions of omicron infections worldwide this year, but no new Covid variant has emerged, only subvariants of omicron.
“So I would rate the risk that there is a dangerous new variant in China as quite low,” Murray said. He noted that “some very special properties” are required for a new variant to emerge and replace Omicron.
The variant was first detected in South Africa more than a year ago. Omicron is far more transmissible but causes less severe disease than when Covid first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China.
Unlike much of the world, China’s Covid wave this month is affecting a population of 1.4 billion, most of whom are becoming infected for the first time. Only domestically produced vaccines are widely available for local people.
Beijing suddenly eased many Covid-related movement restrictions this month. Authorities also announced on Monday that they would lift entry quarantine from Jan. 8 and resume passport processing for Chinese citizens who wish to travel abroad for tourism purposes.
The US, Japan and some other countries responded this week by announcing new Covid testing requirements for travelers from China.
Need for hospitalization, dates of death
Murray said a total travel ban, if proposed, “wouldn’t make sense” and that it “wouldn’t have any testing requirements”.
“The argument being made is that we need more transparency about what’s happening in China,” Murray said.
“The earliest sign of a new variant is actually going to be a change in hospitalizations or the death rate associated with Covid, and not just a lot of infections because we know Omicron is doing that,” he said.
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China’s National Health Commission said Sunday it would halt the daily release of information on Covid infections and deaths. However, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention has been running daily reports – which, together 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.
Publications on the China Disease Control Center’s website show that its director, Shen Hongbing, held online meetings with his US counterpart and the head of the UK’s health security agency this month.
As for the theory that viruses adapt to keep their hosts alive, Murray cautioned that it holds “over a fairly long period of time, not months or years.”
Genomic research shows it’s still possible for a mutation to arise that causes more serious disease, Murray said. “I think it would be unwise to just assume that all variants will be like Omicron.”
A study published in Nature Medicine in November also found that contracting Covid-19 more than once increases the risk of organ failure and death.