A police officer in protective gear seen on the street during the Covid-19 lockdown in Shanghai in May. Photo: EPA-EFE
Zhou Xin
Zhou Xin

China’s own study shows Omicron is not that deadly, so it’s time to move towards ‘being dynamic’ instead of ‘chasing zero’

  • A study of 33,816 local Covid-19 cases in Shanghai found that only 0.065 per cent of the high-risk group developed severe or critical infections
  • Quarantines for overseas arrivals have been shortened in a number of ports while the frequency of mass nucleic acid testing has been reduced in cities

A recent study, led by China’s top Covid-19 expert Zhang Wenhong, has provided a clearer answer about the health threat of Omicron.

According to a review of 33,816 local Covid-19 cases reported in Shanghai between late March and early May, only 0.065 per cent of the high-risk group, namely those aged above 60 with underlying diseases, developed severe or critical infections, while the “severity” ratio dropped to zero among the non-risk group.

It is important research as it offers a scientific and up-to-date assessment of the health and human costs of Omicron. It also provides key facts for reasonable discussions on how China can better balance the cost and returns of implementing its “dynamic zero” Covid-19 strategy.

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Ever since the Wuhan lockdown in early 2020, China has gradually developed an approach centred around snap lockdowns and mass testing. For deadly variants such as Delta, this approach worked well for the country by reducing deaths on the one hand while keeping economic growth on track.

Many places in China are still rigorously following this approach. Shenzhen, for instance, just imposed a lockdown of its financial and commercial district bordering Hong Kong after a number of cases were found.

But it is also worth noting that many local governments have started to deal with the Omicron variant in a more flexible way. Quarantines for overseas arrivals have been shortened in a number of ports while the frequency of mass nucleic acid testing has been reduced across cities. Hangzhou, for instance, has extended the testing frequency to once a week instead of every 72 hours.

All these signals point to a gradual departure from draconian lockdowns and extended quarantines in the coming months. The process won’t be linear, as few cities can afford to see a massive outbreak like the one in Shanghai, when the overriding policy is still to keep any outbreak at bay. But it also might be safe to say that China will try to avoid any more extended lockdowns like in Shanghai.

Shenzhen’s Futian district was put under a three day lockdown amid a wider spread of Covid-19. Photo: Weibo

As the country is committed to social and economic development goals for 2022, including a 5.5 per cent GDP growth rate, the implementation of a “dynamic zero” strategy on the ground must take the approach of “being dynamic” instead of “chasing zero”.

After all, Zhang, the director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases of China, has found that Omicron is not that deadly so the potential risk may not justify draconian measures in response.