A SinoPharm employee at a Beijing plant examines injectors of the company’s attenuated Covid-19 vaccine. Photo: Xinhua

China may soon launch a roadmap to adopt a “living with the virus” strategy as two new local vaccines using technologies similar to those of the Novavax and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines, are now available in the country, according to Chinese officials and medical experts.

After top medical expert Zeng Guang said on Monday it’s time for China to plan for a “Covid exit strategy”, Guo Weimin, a spokesperson for the annual meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), said Thursday that the country would closely monitor the global pandemic situation and seek to control the virus at lower social costs.

State media have recently started promoting the use of two Chinese-made non-inactivated vaccines as booster shots. Having criticized infectious disease expert Zhang Wenhong for promoting a “living with the virus” strategy last July, state media appear to be changing their tune.

Meanwhile, after the United Kingdom officially ended all its Covid rules on February 24, the United States on Wednesday outlined a road map for “living with Covid.”

Since Beijing’s official announcement of virus outbreaks in Wuhan, Hubei province in late January 2000, China has strictly implemented its “zero Covid policy” by requiring all incoming travelers to be isolated at designated hotels for 14-21 days and locking down cities that reported outbreaks of infections.

Last year, Beijing renamed its anti-epidemic strategy as “dynamic zero infections” after outbreaks with dozens to hundreds of cases were reported in some Chinese cities. Officials explained that the strategy did not mean “absolute zero infections” but rather that local governments must use all means necessary to cut off virus transmission chains when outbreaks were identified.

Last July, Zhang Wenhong of Huashan Hospital in Shanghai wrote in an article after a virus outbreak in Nanjing that China should prepare to live with the coronavirus, which could return at any time.

Zhang said China had to seek a way to reopen itself to the world so that people could return to their normal lives and stop worrying about the pandemic. Zhang was then criticized by state media for deviating from Beijing’s zero Covid strategy.

Chinese health workers in Tianjin after a Covid outbreak last year. Photo: Twitter

After Hong Kong was hit by the highly infectious Omicron variant in late December and January, Tian Feilong, an associate professor at Beijing’s Beihang University Law School and director of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, on February 9 criticized Hong Kong officials for leaning towards Western countries’ “living with the virus” strategy, which he said was scientifically groundless.

Chinese President Xi Jinping on February 16 ordered Hong Kong to make epidemic control its top priority.

On Monday, Zeng Guang, a member of the high-level expert panel of the National Health Commission, published an article on Weibo elaborating on his view on the “living with the virus” and “dynamic zero infections” strategies. 

Zeng said China had not been ready to live with the virus due to the relatively low vaccination rate among elderly people and those with chronic diseases. However, he praised the Western countries for having the courage to seek to live with the virus while China should calmly and humbly learn from their experience.

He said he believed that “China would soon unveil a roadmap for a Chinese-style ‘living with the virus’ strategy.” This time, Zeng’s comments were notably not criticized by state media but rather quoted by the Workers’ Daily, an official newspaper of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions.

“We will closely monitor, study and judge the development of the domestic and global epidemic situations, strengthen scientific prevention and control, implement precise policies, and strive to control the epidemic at a higher level and at a lower social cost, so as to ensure the sustainable, healthy and stable development of the economy and society,” Guo Weimin said in a media briefing on Thursday ahead of the opening of the “two sessions,” or the annual meetings of the CPPCC and the National People’s Congress (NPC).

The annual meeting of CPPCC started on Friday and is expected to end on March 10, while NPC’s will start on Saturday and finish on March 11. Beijing usually announces key policy changes after the “two sessions.”

Zeng’s article came after China last month began its “sequential immunization,” or so-called “vaccine-mixing,” scheme during the weekend of February 19-20, which marked the end of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

China has sold and donated its Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine far and wide in Southeast Asia. Photo: Xinhua

The scheme targets people over 18 years old who are fully vaccinated with one of the three inactivated vaccines produced by Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech, according to the National Health Commission. Two shots are required for full vaccination.

On February 19, the Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism of the State Council announced that a viral vector vaccine from CanSino Biologics could be used as a booster shot to fight against the coronavirus.

On Tuesday, China’s National Medical Products Administration (NMPA) conditionally approved the application for listing registration of a recombinant protein-based Covid-19 vaccine (CHO Cells) developed by Anhui Zhifei Longcom Biopharmaceutical Co Ltd.

The CanSino vaccine is using a technology similar to that of the UK’s Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and was launched for trial use in March last year. Citing research published in The Lancet last December, state media said the vaccine could offer a protection rate of 63.7% for all cases and 96% for critical ones.

The Zhifei Longcom vaccine is using a technology similar to that of the US’s Novavax vaccine. Zhifei Longcom said its vaccine could offer a protection rate of 92.68% against the Alpha strain, 100% against the Gamma, 84.82% against the Kappa and 81.38% against the Delta. It said the vaccine could provide “good protection” against the Omicron variant.

As of February 25, 1.27 billion people in China have been inoculated while 1.23 billion of them have received two doses of the Sinopharm and Sinovac’s inactivated vaccines. Among the fully vaccinated, a total 555 million people in the country have received a booster shot.

Wang Huaqing, chief immunization planning expert at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said on February 26 that people should try a different type of vaccine for booster shots.

Researchers had earlier have found that inactivated vaccines failed to help people create enough antibodies to fight against the Omicron strain, especially six months after the second dose.

Read: HK mulls citywide tests after Xi’s strict order

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3