NEWS China pushes vaccine as retreat from ‘zero COVID’ turns messy

China pushes vaccine as retreat from 'zero COVID' turns messy
  • Beijing urges elderly to get vaccinated
  • WHO calls for vaccination push as virus spreads
  • Economic summit kicks off amid worse data

BEIJING/SHANGHAI, Dec 15 (Reuters) – China raced on Thursday to vaccinate its most vulnerable amid an expected wave of COVID-19 infections, with some analysts predicting a death toll after strict containment measures were eased. The number of people will soar in three years.

The move comes as the World Health Organization also expresses concern that China’s 1.4 billion people are not adequately vaccinated and that the United States is offering help to deal with a surge in infections.

Beijing began rolling back its strict “zero COVID” containment measures last Wednesday, scrapping testing requirements and easing quarantine rules that had caused anxiety among tens of millions and hit the world’s second-largest economy.

The pivot to President Xi Jinping’s signature “zero COVID” policy comes after unprecedented widespread protests. But WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan said infections were surging in China ahead of the government’s decision to phase out its strict regime.

“There’s a narrative at the moment that China lifts the restrictions and all of a sudden the disease is out of control,” Ryan told a briefing in Geneva.

“The disease is spreading intensively because I believe the control measures alone will not stop the disease.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Thursday that China has “institutional advantages” in fighting COVID-19.

“We will be able to get through the peak of the epidemic smoothly,” he said at a regular news conference in response to White House national security spokesman John Kirby, who said the United States stood ready to help if China asked.

As China shifts tack, there are growing signs of chaos — including long lines at fever clinics, drug rushes and panic buying across the country.

On Thursday night, China’s state-owned assets regulator urged state-backed big drugmakers to ensure supplies of COVID-related drugs.

Those companies include China Resources, China General Technology and Sinopharm, which have businesses making drugs that can ease symptoms of the coronavirus.

A video posted online on Wednesday showed several people in thick winter coats sitting on stools receiving intravenous drips on a street outside a clinic in central Hubei province. Reuters confirmed the location of the video.

The COVID scare in China has also led people in some communities in Hong Kong, Macau and Australia to seek out fever-reducing medicines and testing kits for family and friends on the mainland.

For all its efforts to contain the virus since it broke out in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019, China may now have to pay the price for protecting a population that lacks “herd immunity” and has low vaccination rates among the elderly, analysts said.

“Authorities have allowed cases in Beijing and other cities to spread to the point where reinstating restrictions, testing and tracing have largely failed to contain the outbreak,” analysts at Eurasia Group said in a note on Thursday.

“More than 1 million people could die from COVID in the next few months.”

Other experts estimate the death toll may exceed 2 million. China has so far reported just 5,235 COVID-related deaths, extremely low by global standards.

Chinese stocks and their currency fell on Thursday amid concerns over the spread of the virus.

On Dec. 14, China reported 2,000 new symptomatic cases of COVID-19 infection, compared with a daily rate of 2,291. However, as testing has dwindled, official figures have become less reliable. It also stopped reporting asymptomatic data on Wednesday.

care for the elderly

China, which says about 90% of its population has been vaccinated against COVID, has now decided to roll out a second booster shot for high-risk groups and those over 60.

Mi Feng, a spokesman for the National Health Commission, said on Wednesday that there was a need to speed up the rollout of vaccinations, according to comments reported by state media.

The latest official figures showed that 1.43 million doses of the COVID vaccine were injected in China on Tuesday, well above the 100,000 to 200,000 doses administered per day in November. It took a total of 3.45 billion injections.

Vaccinations in China have been ramping up in recent days. The latest official figures showed it administered 1.43 million doses of the vaccine on Tuesday, well above the 100,000 to 200,000 doses administered per day in November.

But a nursing home in Shanghai said on Wednesday that some of its residents had not been vaccinated, and that it was banning visitors and non-essential deliveries because of their underlying health conditions while stockpiling medicines, testing kits and protective gear.

“We are racking our brains on how to ensure the safety of your grandparents,” Yuepu Tianyi Nursing Home wrote in a letter posted on its official WeChat account.

Beijing, largely resistant to Western vaccines and treatments, has relied on locally made vaccines. Pfizer’s (PFE.N) oral COVID-19 treatment Paxlovid is one of the few foreign drugs it has approved.

However, the treatment is only available in hospitals for high-risk patients, but signs have emerged in recent days that it may soon be available more widely.

Shares of China National Pharmaceutical Group Co (600056.SS) surged on Wednesday after announcing a deal to import treatments from the U.S. drugmaker.

economic conference

As the virus spread, President Xi, his ruling Politburo and senior government officials began a two-day meeting to plot a revival of China’s battered economy, according to people familiar with the matter.

Data on Thursday showed China’s economy lost more steam in November as growth in factory output slowed and retail sales continued to slide, both missing expectations and marking the worst reading since May.

Economists estimate that China’s economic growth has slowed to around 3% this year, one of the country’s worst performances in nearly half a century.

Reporting by Albee Zhang, Liz Lee and Bernard Orr in Beijing, Brenda Goh in Shanghai and Stella Qiu in Sydney; Additional reporting by Ella Cao in Beijing; Writing by John Geddie and Greg Torode; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Arun Koyyur

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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