US and global health officials worry about China’s transparency on virus spread

People receive an inhaled COVID-19 vaccine at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Bijie, Guizhou province, China, 29 December 2022.

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US and global health leaders say Beijing is not sharing enough information about the spread of Covid-19 in China, leaving the international community in the dark about the scale and severity of the current wave of infections in the world’s most populous country.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement Wednesday that a lack of transparency from China could delay the identification of new Covid variants that pose a public health threat. China shares very few genomic sequences used to identify such variants, according to the CDC.

The CDC on Wednesday announced new testing requirements for passengers beginning travel in China. All passengers, regardless of nationality or vaccination status, must be tested for Covid at least two days before their flight to the US and present a negative result to the airline before departure. The conditions come into effect on May 1st.

India, Italy, Japan and Taiwan have also imposed Covid testing requirements on airline passengers originating in China. The Chinese government is battling a wave of infections after relaxing its strict zero-Covid policy following social unrest earlier this year.

A US federal health official, in a call with reporters on Wednesday, said the Biden administration has very limited information on the number of new Covid cases, hospitalizations, and particularly deaths in China. The number of housing tests and reports has also decreased in the country, making it difficult to determine the true infection rate, the official said.

China’s zero-Covid policy, aimed at suppressing outbreaks through strict measures, means a large segment of the population lacks immunity to the highly transmissible Omicron variants, the official said. As a consequence, the Biden administration predicts that many people in China will become infected relatively quickly.

“What worries us is a new variant that may actually emerge in China,” said the official, who declined to be named as a condition of the press call. “With so many people being affected in China in a short period of time, there is a possibility that a new variant may emerge.”

The latest genome sequencing data shared by health authorities in China suggests that the Covid variants circulating in the country are similar to those known in the rest of the world, according to a statement from GISAID, a public database based in Germany, this week.

In the past 180 days, China has sequenced and shared 412 Covid cases with GISAID, compared to more than 576,000 shared by US health authorities in China, less than 1% of reported and sequenced Covid cases have been shared while the US shared more than 4% and UK almost 12%.

The World Health Organization has also urged China to share more information on what is happening on the ground as the virus spreads.

“The WHO is very concerned about the evolving situation in China with increasing reports of serious diseases,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the global health agency, during a press conference in Geneva last week.

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“In order to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment of the situation on the ground, WHO needs more detailed information on the severity of the disease, hospital admissions and ICU support requirements,” Tedros said.

according to dr Mike Ryan, head of the global health agency’s emergency response program.

“We don’t have full knowledge of the impact,” Ryan said of the Covid wave in China during the Geneva press conference last week.

Dr Maria van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for Covid, said last week that Omicron subvariants BA.5, BQ.1, BF.7 and BA.2.75 are all circulating in China. XBB was also discovered in China, which is one of the most immune-preventable variants to date.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, in a report published Aug. 12, said a massive wave of infections in China was inevitable as Beijing eased its zero-Covid policy. According to the report, there will be a large number of serious diseases among the elderly population and the death toll will be significant.

China faces a difficult situation because its domestically developed vaccines are not as effective as Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA syringes. The vaccination coverage of the elderly population in China also lags behind other countries.

“One in seven people on the planet lives in China and accelerating vaccination, protecting the health system during this time is in the interests of seven out of seven people on this planet,” Ryan said.

The US has offered mRNA Covid vaccines and other support to China, but Beijing has rejected the offer, the federal health official said Wednesday.

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