SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, mutates constantly. Since the beginning of the pandemic three years ago, the virus has hit the world with different faces – Alpha, Beta, Delta, Gamma and then Omicron – taking away millions of lives.
Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Saturday at an annual meeting that if China’s latest measures to ease restrictions had been taken at the beginning of this year, 866,000 to 1 million COVID-related deaths would have occurred on the Chinese mainland in 2022.
By November when China announced its new policies to relax a series of stringent measures meant to monitor and cut the spread of COVID-19, the country had reported over 5,000 deaths caused by this virus.
The low death toll, out of a population of 1.4 billion, did not come easily. As many countries tried and gave up stricter measures one after another in the past three years, China didn’t follow.
Over the past three years, whenever and wherever there was a resurgence of COVID-19, the local governments attempted to cut off the virus transmission as soon as possible, even though it meant a temporary slowdown of social mobility and economic activities.
The country has released and updated nine versions of the Diagnosis and Treatment Protocol for COVID-19, providing guidance for controlling the spread and timely treatment of COVID-19 patients.
A new edition will be released soon, Zhong Nanshan, China’s renowned respiratory disease expert, said last week at a lecture on the fight against Omicron held by the Sun Yat-sen University, adding that the new edition will be conducive to economic development on the basis of active prevention and control of the pandemic.
All these measures based on the latest situation and mutation of the virus were introduced in order to contain the virus spread in a more science-based and targeted manner, said China’s National Health Commission.
Less lethal Omicron
Researchers have found that Omicron’s pathogenicity and virulence have decreased, compared with COVID-19’s previous strains.
A study led by researchers from the University of Hong Kong in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and Hainan Medical University in south China’s Hainan Province, published in the journal Nature on January 21, showed that the replication and pathogenicity of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 in mice are attenuated compared with the wild-type strain and the Alpha, Beta and Delta variants.
Neeltje van Doremalen, a researcher at the Laboratory of Virology of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases under the United States’ National Institutes of Health, gave a similar opinion in November in journal Science Advances. Data showed that Omicron replicates to lower levels than the Delta in rhesus macaques, resulting in reduced clinical disease.
China’s next move amid Omicron
Chinese researchers are optimistic about the situation, with Omicron being the dominant virus for the time being.
Epidemiologist Wu said that the proportion of severe and critical cases of the disease among all confirmed cases in China has dropped from 16.47 percent in 2020 to 3.32 percent in 2021. As of December 5, 2022, it was 0.18 percent.
Zhang Wenhong, head of the Center for Infectious Diseases with the Shanghai-based Huashan Hospital of Fudan University, said at a conference that with human’s immune system gradually coming to a balance with Omicron, it was unlikely that a more contagious strain would jump out.
It is “a foregone conclusion” that China is coming out of this pandemic, and the trend is not going to reverse, Zhang said, but the elderly and other vulnerable groups still need to be properly protected, urging seniors to get vaccinated.
The Chinese government has recently released a plan aimed at ramping up vaccination among the elderly population in order to better protect this vulnerable group.
The plan calls for efforts to accelerate the increase of the vaccination rate among people aged 80 and above, and also to continue to raise the vaccination rate among people aged between 60 and 79.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on December 14 that he was “hopeful” that the COVID-19 pandemic would no longer be considered a global emergency some time next year.