According to Dr. Chris Murray, director of a health research center at the University of Washington in Seattle, a dangerous new Covid-19 variant is unlikely to be spreading in China.
His remarks come after US health officials warned earlier this week about the possibility of a new Covid variant emerging in China’s nationwide outbreak — and how Beijing’s lack of transparency could delay detection of public health risks.
Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, noted that while there are likely billions of omicron infections worldwide this year, no new Covid variants have emerged, only omicron subvariants.
“That’s why I would put the risk as quite low that there is a dangerous new variant in China,” he said. He noted that “some very special characteristics” would be needed for a new variant to emerge and replace omicron.
More than a year ago, the variant was discovered in South Africa. Omicron is far more contagious, but causes less severe disease, than when Covid first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China.
Unlike the rest of the world, China’s Covid outbreak this month is affecting 1.4 billion people, the majority of whom are being infected for the first time. Locals can only get vaccines made in their own country.
This month, Beijing abruptly relaxed many Covid-related movement restrictions. On Monday, authorities also announced the elimination of inbound quarantine beginning January 8, as well as the resumption of passport processing for Chinese citizens seeking to travel abroad for tourism purposes.
Following that, the United States, Japan, and a few other countries announced new Covid testing requirements for Chinese travelers this week.
Murray stated that an outright travel ban “would not make sense,” and that he “would not impose testing requirements.”
“The argument that’s being made is, we need more transparency about what’s happening in China,” Murray said.
“The earliest sign of some new variant is actually going to be a change in the hospitalization or the death rate associated with Covid, and not just lots of infections, because we know omicron does that,” he said.
China’s National Health Commission announced on Sunday that it would no longer release daily data on Covid infections and deaths. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, on the other hand, has maintained daily reports that, along with hospital discharges, show only thousands of new Covid infections per day and a handful of deaths. In China, Covid testing is no longer required.
According to information on China’s disease control center’s website, its director, Shen Hongbing, met online this month with his US counterpart and the head of the United Kingdom’s Health Security Agency.
Murray cautioned that the theory that viruses adapt to keep their hosts alive “applies over quite a long time span, not months or years.”
According to Murray, genomic research indicates that a mutation causing more severe disease is still possible. “I believe it would be a mistake to assume that all variants will be like omicron.”
A November study published in Nature Medicine discovered that being infected with Covid-19 more than once increases the risk of organ failure and death.
(Adapted from CNBC.com)