COVID Chaos in China

China has once again become the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the virus rampages across the country uncontrollably. The scale of the current flare-up has caused concerns about the consequences for the rest of the world.

A month ago, we were reading about a wave of Chinese protests against the CCP’s harsh COVID Zero policies. Xi Jinping capitulated, relaxing some measures and redirecting towards ‘living with the virus’.

But it’s now become obvious the country was not prepared for an outbreak of this magnitude.

It’s not exactly clear what is to blame for China’s unprecedented case numbers; likely, it’s a combination of factors. China doesn’t have the best vaccination figures, and the efficacy of Chinese vaccines is not great, especially against current variants. Some observers are pointing the finger at the decision to stop contact tracing in early November – before the mass protests.

Even during the CCP’s ‘draconian’ lockdown laws, critics have said not enough was done to prepare the country for an ‘exit wave’. The Chinese government did not stockpile antiviral drugs, or use their powers to push a vaccination campaign – particularly among their older population, where inoculation numbers are low.

Around 40% of over-80-year-olds in China have had two vaccine doses and a booster jab as of November 2022 – doubling figures from April the same year.

Regardless of what led to the current wave, it has many officials across the world worried, especially as China is set to open international borders next week, allowing citizens to travel for Lunar New Year.

Countries Implement New COVID Testing Requirements for China

A swath of countries has enforced additional travel regulations for passengers coming from China – including Australia.

Federal Health Minister Mark Butler announced on Sunday that Australia would mandate pre-flight COVID testing for Chinese travellers “out of an abundance of caution”. He cited the lack of transparent information about China’s outbreak.

This is a justification other countries have used for similar regulations – including the UK, US and Japan. And it’s true that there is no clarity around China’s exact case numbers.

Official estimates put numbers at 4,000 cases a day, and have only reported around 15 deaths since the start of December. The reality, by scientific estimates, is closer to 1 million daily cases.

Some local and regional authorities have been reporting their own estimated infection data. A senior doctor at a Shanghai hospital said he believed up to 70% of the city’s 25 million people had been infected in the current wave. The coastal city of Qingdao estimated 500,000 daily cases, while the manufacturing hub of Dongguan listed 300,000.

With these kinds of case numbers, lots of governments have said they’re worried a new variant of concern will emerge in China and be spread through international travel – another reason for increased testing on flights.

But as several scientific experts have pointed out, no such new variant has been reported yet – the dominant variants in China’s current wave are BF.7 and BA.5.2. And while anything is possible, it’s unlikely this surge will breed a variant more dangerous than those currently circulating worldwide.

While scientific experts are not overly concerned about a new variant, the dominant BF.7 strain is extremely infectious, with an R0 value of between 10 and 18.6. By comparison, Omicron has an average R0 of 5.08.

Testing for new variants also doesn’t require individual pre-flight tests – testing a random sample of incoming passengers is sufficient, or analysing the wastewater off a plane. In fact, Australia’s own Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, said he does “not believe that there is sufficient public health rationale” to justify our new testing requirements.

The bigger danger of China’s outbreak is the effect it will have on supply chains. In December, Chinese factory activity recorded its biggest drop since the start of the pandemic, shrinking for the third month in a row.

As Treasurer Jim Chalmers warned on Monday, “The impact of COVID on China and on supply chains is one of the key risks to our economy in 2023.”

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