In recent months, there were mass protests in response to China’s “zero-Covid” policy being reinstated in response to a new surge of Covid-19 cases in China’s cities. The new Covid lockdowns were opposed by Covid-weary Chinese citizens.
In addition to cracking down on these public protests, the Chinese government reversed itself on its “zero-Covid” policy. As a result, the new surge in Covid-19 cases is increasing rapidly and raising new fears of emergent Covid-19 variants developing.
The AP reports, China’s COVID-19 surge raises odds of new coronavirus mutant:
Could the COVID-19 surge in China unleash a new coronavirus mutant on the world?
Scientists don’t know but worry that might happen. It could be similar to omicron variants circulating there now. It could be a combination of strains. Or something entirely different, they say.
“China has a population that is very large and there’s limited immunity. And that seems to be the setting in which we may see an explosion of a new variant,” said Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University.
Every new infection offers a chance for the coronavirus to mutate, and the virus is spreading rapidly in China. The country of 1.4 billion has largely abandoned its “zero COVID” policy. Though overall reported vaccination rates are high, booster levels are lower, especially among older people. Domestic vaccines have proven less effective against serious infection than Western-made messenger RNA versions. Many were given more than a year ago, meaning immunity has waned.
The result? Fertile ground for the virus to change.
“When we’ve seen big waves of infection, it’s often followed by new variants being generated,” Ray said.
About three years ago, the original version of the coronavirus spread from China to the rest of the world and was eventually replaced by the delta variant, then omicron and its descendants, which continue plaguing the world today.
Dr. Shan-Lu Liu, who studies viruses at Ohio State University, said many existing omicron variants have been detected in China, including BF.7, which is extremely adept at evading immunity and is believed to be driving the current surge.
Experts said a partially immune population like China’s puts particular pressure on the virus to change. Ray compared the virus to a boxer that “learns to evade the skills that you have and adapt to get around those.”
One big unknown is whether a new variant will cause more severe disease. Experts say there’s no inherent biological reason the virus has to become milder over time.
“Much of the mildness we’ve experienced over the past six to 12 months in many parts of the world has been due to accumulated immunity either through vaccination or infection, not because the virus has changed” in severity, Ray said.
In China, most people have never been exposed to the coronavirus. China’s vaccines rely on an older technology producing fewer antibodies than messenger RNA vaccines.
Given those realities, Dr. Gagandeep Kang, who studies viruses at the Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, said it remains to be seen if the virus will follow the same pattern of evolution in China as it has in the rest of the world after vaccines came out. “Or,” she asked, “will the pattern of evolution be completely different?”
Recently, the World Health Organization expressed concern about reports of severe disease in China. Around the cities of Baoding and Langfang outside Beijing, hospitals have run out of intensive care beds and staff as severe cases surge.
China’s plan to track the virus centers around three city hospitals in each province, where samples will be collected from walk-in patients who are very sick and all those who die every week, Xu Wenbo of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said at a briefing Tuesday.
He said 50 of the 130 omicron versions detected in China had resulted in outbreaks. The country is creating a national genetic database “to monitor in real time” how different strains were evolving and the potential implications for public health, he said.
At this point, however, there’s limited information about genetic viral sequencing coming out of China, said Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
“We don’t know all of what’s going on,” Luban said. But clearly, “the pandemic is not over.”
At the same time China is allowing the Covid variants to spread among its citizens, it will relax its rules on foreign visitors to China, which will only facilitate the spread of newly emergent Covid-19 variants from China through international air travel.
The AP reports, China to scrap COVID-19 quarantine for incoming passengers:
China will drop a COVID-19 quarantine requirement for passengers arriving from abroad starting Jan. 8, the National Health Commission announced Monday in the latest easing of the country’s once-strict virus-control measures.
Currently, arriving passengers must quarantine for five days at a hotel, followed by three days at home. That is down from as much as three weeks in the past.
The scrapping of the quarantine requirement is a major step toward fully reopening travel with the rest of the world, which the government severely curtailed in a bid to keep the virus out.
The restrictions have prevented most Chinese from traveling abroad, limited face-to-face diplomatic exchanges and sharply reduced the number of foreigners in China for work and study.
China’s health commission said that steps would be taken to make it easier for some foreigners to enter the country, though it didn’t include tourists. It did indicate that Chinese would be gradually allowed to travel abroad for tourism again, an important source of revenue for hotels and related businesses in many countries.
People coming to China will still need a negative virus test 48 hours before departure and passengers will be required to wear protective masks on board, an online post from the health commission said.
We should be more concerned about people leaving from China and returning to their home countries. China’s policies of “a negative virus test 48 hours before departure and passengers be[ing] required to wear protective masks on board,” and “arriving passengers must quarantine for five days at a hotel, followed by three days at home,” seems like a reasonable precaution for other countries to follow for flights arriving from China.
Finally, there is China’s military belligerence towards Taiwan today. China sends 71 warplanes, 7 ships toward Taiwan in 24 hours:
China’s military sent 71 planes and seven ships toward Taiwan in a 24-hour display of force directed at the self-ruled island, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said Monday, after China expressed anger at Taiwan-related provisions in a U.S. annual defense spending bill.
China’s military harassment of Taiwan, which it claims is its own territory, has intensified in recent years, and the Communist Party’s People’s Liberation Army has sent planes or ships toward the island on a near-daily basis.
Between 6 a.m. Sunday and 6 a.m. Monday, 47 of the Chinese planes crossed the median of the Taiwan Strait, an unofficial boundary once tacitly accepted by both sides, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense.
Among the planes China sent towards Taiwan were 18 J-16 fighter jets, 11 J-1 fighters, 6 Su-30 fighters and drones.
Taiwan said it monitored the Chinese moves through its land-based missile systems, as well as on its own navy vessels.
“This is a firm response to the current U.S.-Taiwan escalation and provocation,” said Shi Yi, the spokesman for the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command, in a statement on Sunday night. It announced that the PLA was holding joint combat patrols and joint strike drills in the waters around Taiwan.
Shi was referring to the U.S. defense spending bill, which calls China a strategic challenge. With regard to the Indo-Pacific region, the legislation authorizes increased security cooperation with Taiwan and requires expanded cooperation with India on emerging defense technologies, readiness and logistics.
In Washington, an official of the White House National Security Council said China’s military activity near Taiwan was “destabilizing, risks miscalculations, and undermines regional peace and stability.”
The official, who was not authorized to be identified and commented on condition of anonymity, said: “The United States has an abiding interest in peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. We will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability in line with our long-standing commitments and consistent with our one-China policy.”
“Strategery”: Taiwan is home to more than 90% of the manufacturing capacity for the world’s most advanced semiconductors, according to a 2021 Boston Consulting Group report. China needs Taiwan’s biggest chipmaker — more than the other way around:
Analysts emphasized that Taiwan-made chips, especially TSMC’s, are too important to the world and to China for any major disruption on the chip front.
“If you look at the secular demand drivers, cloud infrastructure, electric vehicles, next generation of industrial facilities, they all require chips that are made at TSMC,” said Mehdi Hosseini, senior tech hardware analyst at Susquehanna.
“If, God forbid, TSMC’s fabs in Taiwan cannot operate, I think the global economy would slow down more so than what Covid did [to growth],” he said.
China’s military has often used large military exercises as a demonstration of force in response to U.S. government actions in support of Taiwan.
It conducted large live-fire military exercises in August in response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Beijing views visits from foreign governments to the island as de facto recognition of the island as independent and a challenge to China’s claim of sovereignty.
The U.S. pays lip service to its “One China” policy. The U.S. will defend its strategic interests in Taiwan, i.e., TSMC microchip manufacturing, rather than allow it to fall in the hands of the Chinese Communist government.
The CHIPS And Science Act of 2022 will encourage microchip manufacturers to relocate production in the U.S., and “will strengthen American manufacturing, supply chains, and national security…” FACT SHEET: CHIPS and Science Act Will Lower Costs, Create Jobs, Strengthen Supply Chains, and Counter China. This will take years to develop and to reduce our dependence on microchips made in Taiwan. In the meantime, our strategic interests lead to posturing over Taiwan and tensions with Communist China. Both sides have an interest in avoiding military conflict.