Scientists and researchers at China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have made a rare call urging Beijing to focus on a booster vaccination campaign and consider an exit strategy out of President Xi Jinping’s “zero-COVID” approach.
The briefing paper published last week by four scientists said, “The pathway forward is clear. Vaccinate with confidence and finish strong.”
While China has double-vaccinated most of its population, the booster campaign has only covered around two-thirds of the population. Many health experts say vaccinations have lagged with healthcare personnel and resources currently devoted to enforcing the rigid zero-COVID approach, which calls for regular mass testing, lockdowns and quarantines.
There are as yet no signs of a change in approach from zero-COVID to a new vaccination campaign, particularly with an upcoming once-in-five-year Party Congress, where Mr. Xi will begin a third term, likely to trumpet the success of “zero-COVID”.
As of early September, more than 65 million people in 33 cities were in some form of lockdown in China, media outlet Caixin reported, with signs of people’s patience for the approach, three years into the pandemic, beginning to wane as more transmissible variants bring harsher lockdowns and challenge what was a successful strategy in 2020. Beijing has also lagged behind the rest of the world in opening up.
The CDC paper acknowledged those concerns. “Everyone wants to return to normal life,” the four scientists, Dan Wu, Zundong Yin, Zijiang Feng, and Lance Rodewald, affiliated with the CDC’s National Immunization Program and the Chinese Preventive Medicine Association, wrote. “Vaccination is the key, and time will run out for the vaccination campaign.”
“Sustaining optimised protection for a safe, long-term exit of the pandemic will almost certainly require well-timed second booster doses,” the paper said. “The last 10% in any vaccination campaign is the most difficult to reach, and in our case, the last 10% is also a critically important group to protect because the last 10% has an enrichment of people with comorbidities, many of whom are elderly and will suffer the most from COVID-19 if infected.”
It added that “real-world evidence” from outbreaks in Jilin, Shanghai and Hong Kong had shown Chinese vaccines had shown clear “effectiveness where it is needed the most — prevention of serious, critical, and fatal COVID-19 among people of all ages and regardless of co-morbidities.”
It said zero-COVID had brought China “a rare commodity – tranquil time” and helped avoid mass deaths, but suggested it was time to consider an exit, which would require a second booster.
This will likely mean several months of a sustained campaign before China can open. But so far, there has been no suggestion of a focused booster campaign with the focus still very much on zero-COVID testing and lockdowns, indicating that a return to normalcy for China could be at least a year away, at a minimum.