A resident receives a nucleic acid test for Covid-19 in Nanjing in China's eastern Jiangsu province on August 2, 2021, amid the country's most widespread outbreak in months. Photo: AFP

China will continue its “dynamic zero-case” policy to cut off virus transmission as early as possible, although most countries have adopted a “living with Covid-19 virus” strategy, health officials and infectious disease specialists say.

In the latest epidemic wave which started in China on October 16, more than 1,000 cases have been reported across 21 provinces, mainly in the northeastern region.

The number may seem insignificant when compared with those in Western countries, which have reported tens of thousands of cases daily, but top Chinese leaders said the country would not tolerate virus outbreaks as anti-epidemic work was an important political mission.

Meanwhile, Zhong Nanshan, a Chinese pulmonologist, said China’s ability to reopen its borders to the world would depend on the country’s vaccination rate and the trend of global fatality rates.

Zhong said there was an urgent need for people in China to get a third jab, which could increase their antibody levels and prevent serious symptoms if they get infected.

On October 16, two Shanghai tourists tested positive for the coronavirus in Xian. Five others on the same tour were also infected. As of October 24, more than 133 people had tested positive across China, 106 of whom were related to travel tours.

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism suspended all tour services and stopped interprovincial travel in Beijing, Inner Mongolia, Guizhou and Gansu.

On November 4, a 52-year-old man who worked at a cold store in Dalian, Liaoning province, tested positive. Dozens of his colleagues were then found to be infected, followed by dozens of catering workers and students at a local university as well as people in a commercial building.

Friendship square in dalian. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Friendship square in Dalian, a city that experienced a recent outbreak. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As of Sunday, 235 cases had been reported in Dalian, 54 of them asymptomatic.

Dalian, China’s largest import port for frozen aquatic products, reported two virus outbreaks last year related to cold-chain workers. Local officials said workers could have contracted the virus from the surface of the packages of imported frozen food.

They then separated the cold-chain workers from the community and they were quarantined for 14 days before being sent home. However, investigations showed that nine of the 16 infected workers had violated the rules.

On Sunday, Sun Chunlan, China’s vice-premier and a politburo member of the Communist Party China (CPC) Central Committee, visited Dalian and ordered local officials to strengthen their epidemic controls.

Sun said the epidemic in Dalian remained serious and complicated and it was necessary to speed up the city’s testing scheme and the tracking of transmissions.

“We must implement the spirit of the Sixth Plenary Session of the 19th CPC Central Committee and the important instructions of General Secretary Xi Jinping,” Sun said. “We must regard epidemic prevention and control as an important political issue at present.”

Beijing is going to hold the Winter Olympics in February. The city said participants will remain in a “closed loop” for training, competing, transport, dining and accommodation, while all athletes must be fully vaccinated.

Liang Wannian, head of the expert panel on Covid-19 response at China’s National Health Commission, said Sunday that it was not the time for China to relax its epidemic rules or adopt the “living with the coronavirus” strategy.

“At present, our people’s vaccination rate has not reached a level that can realize herd immunity,” Liang said. “If we relax our epidemic rules too early or hastily, we will lose the achievements that we have made previously.”

Liang said many countries had seen a rebound in local infections and the number of serious cases and deaths after they eased epidemic rules.

He said China would accelerate its vaccination programs, closely monitor the global pandemic situation and fine-tune its epidemic rules at the right time.

He said China now had a “dynamic zero-case” policy instead of an absolute zero-infection policy. This meant China would stay on high alert when there were no cases and use different methods to contain the virus when a case was identified.

He said this “dynamic zero-case” policy was cost-effective and suited China’s situation.

China has taken an aggressive approach to containing the pandemic. Photo: Xinhua

In August, Singapore adopted a “living with the virus” strategy by easing its anti-epidemic rules and reopening its borders for quarantine travel after its vaccination rate reached 80%.

However, it then reported high numbers of cases per day. On Sunday, 1,723 cases were recorded and 10 deaths. The situation in Singapore has supported medical experts’ theory that a high vaccination rate can only help reduce the fatality rate, but not stop the virus from spreading.

Similar situations were seen in Western countries. On Sunday, the United Kingdom recorded 36,128 new cases with 63 dead, while Germany saw 19,203 cases and 43 deaths. The two countries, with their vaccination rates at about 70%, had their case fatality rates (CFR) at 0.2%.

The United States, with about 60% of its population fully vaccinated, recorded 25,411 new cases with 162 deaths. Its CFR was 0.6%. In Russia, a total of 37,620 people tested positive on Sunday and 1,194 died. The country, with 35.5% of its people fully vaccinated, has a CFR of 3.2%.

The global CFR is about 2%, slightly down from 2.2% at the beginning of this year, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

China’s vaccination rate was at 75.8% as of November 9, meaning 1.07 billion people in the country were fully vaccinated, infectious disease expert Zhong Nanshan said in a speech in Guangzhou on November 11.

Zhang said Guangzhou was hit by the Delta variant between May 21 and June 18 this year and only reported 159 cases. He said Guangzhou’s CFR was only 0.1% during that Covid epidemic wave, showing that Chinese vaccines had helped people avoid serious illness symptoms.

However, he added that such a low case fatality rate in Guangzhou was achieved under special conditions, which refer to the city’s strict lockdown measures, and it had not been tested by normal living conditions.

Zhong said as Chinese vaccines, produced by Sinovac and Sinopharm, had an efficacy rate of about 70%, the country had to achieve a vaccination rate of 83.3% before it could reopen its borders and relax its epidemic rules.

He said it was necessary for people to have a booster shot every six months to maintain their antibody levels.

Zhong said there were four main epidemic strategies in the world, including strong control, suppression, containment and no measures at all. He said China’s strong control strategy had so far shown positive and effective results and should be maintained.