WHO is pleased to see China easing tough zero COVID policies

LONDON (AP) – A senior World Health Organization official said the UN agency was “glad” to see China ease some of its coronavirus restrictions, saying it “really important that governments listen to the their people when people suffer”.

In a press conference on Friday, WHO’s director of emergencies Dr Michael Ryan said the organization was pleased to see China “adjusting its current strategies” as it tries to recalibrate its response to COVID-19 .

Huge protests against China’s severe COVID-19 restrictions erupted in several cities last week, in the largest show of opposition to the ruling Communist Party in decades.

“We’ve all had to deal with movement restrictions, we’ve all had to deal with having our lives changed, and frankly, it’s exhausting,” Ryan said. WHO has previously described China’s “zero-COVID” strategy as “unsustainable,” saying the super-infectious omicron variant has made it impossible to try to stop every single case of COVID.

Ryan said using imported messenger RNA vaccines, such as those made by BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna, would be a “robust option” for China to boost its immunity coverage. Vaccines grown in China have proven less effective, and scientists say any protection they provided is likely to have evaporated with the emergence of omicrons.

Deciding which vaccines to use “are choices that sovereign governments must make based on the best benefit for their population,” Ryan said. He said future strategies should balance “control of the virus with the lives, livelihoods, well-being and human rights of people in China.”

China has developed its own version of an mRNA vaccine and has yet to license any of the shots made by Western companies.

Unlike many Western countries, vaccination rates among Chinese seniors lag behind; only 66% of people over 80 received an injection, while 40% received a booster, according to China’s National Health Commission.

By comparison, 93 percent of Americans ages 65 and older have received a full course of vaccine and another 2 percent have at least one dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Several public health officials have warned that China’s zero-COVID strategy, which involves locking down entire communities if infections are found, serves little purpose given how easily the omicron variant spreads. But without significantly increasing the country’s vaccination rate quickly, lifting those restrictions could produce a surge in hospitalizations and deaths that could overwhelm the health system.

In recent days, Chinese authorities have eased some COVID-19 protocols in cities including Guangzhou and Chengdu, easing testing requirements and travel controls. However, many of the rules that brought people to the streets of Shanghai, Beijing and at least six other cities remain in place.

The announcements of easing restrictions failed to mention last weekend’s protests over the human cost of anti-virus measures that confine millions to their homes. But the timing and publicity suggested that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government was trying to appease public anger.

Globally, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that around 90% of the population now has some sort of immunity to the coronavirus via a previous infection or vaccination and that the world was nearing the end of the pandemic.

“We’re much closer to saying the emergency phase of the pandemic is over, but we’re not there yet,” Tedros said.

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