Monday 28 November 2022 03:32 PM Could China's Covid chaos send world straight back to square one? trends now
China's unrelenting Covid outbreak could spawn a doomsday variant which has the potential to send the world back to square one in its fight against the virus, experts warned today.
Cases have doubled within a fortnight across the country, where the pandemic began almost three years ago. A record 40,000 people are now testing positive every day, with millions subject to restrictions as Beijing sticks to its economically-crippling 'zero Covid' strategy.
Major anti-Government protests have erupted in cities over a fresh batch of virus-containing rules that has seen some confined to their homes for more than three months. It saw police arrest a BBC journalist, who said forces beat and kicked him while reporting on the unprecedented demonstrations.
Leading experts called China the 'ideal' breeding ground for risky variants because of how it has been sheltered from previous waves and has a low vaccine uptake. High infection rates are a 'cauldron of virus evolution' which could result in a more lethal and immune-evading variant, they said.
China is experiencing an unprecedented wave of Covid which has sparked tough lockdowns, testing regimes and mask mandates
Police in Shanghai arrest an activist after clashes with demonstrators which also saw a BBC cameraman detained and beaten
A health worker in Shanghai takes a swab sample from a woman to test for Covid on November 28. Hundreds of people have taken to the streets in China's major cities in a rare outpouring of public anger against the state over its zero-Covid policy
However, other top scientists warned that the spike — which shows no signs of having peaked yet — will not necessarily lead to a worrying, new strain.
China has imposed stringent pandemic rules for nearly three years, ever since the coronavirus was first spotted in Wuhan.
It means the nation's 1.4billion-plus residents have been plagued by aggressive restrictions while other nations who adopted hermit strategies have resorted to living with the virus, which poses a much milder threat now than when the pandemic began.
It has seen local authorities subject residents to strict lockdowns, mass testing campaigns and months-long quarantine even for tiny outbreaks, which has triggered food and medicine shortages.
China's daily infections previously peaked at around 25,000 in April.
Since then, it has been logging between 200 and 2,000 cases per day.
But the rate began to shoot upwards one month ago and this weekend hit 39,791 — nine in 10 of which were asymptomatic, according to data from the National Health Commission.
Confirmed cases jumped 66 per cent to 4,307 in Beijing, while most infections were logged in southwestern city Chongqing (8,861) and Guangzhou (7,721), in the south.
Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist based at the University of Reading, told MailOnline: 'Every single Covid infection presents the virus with an opportunity to change its characteristics.
'The idea that this only leads to decreased lethality is simply wrong; having effective population-wide immunity seems to have had a much more substantial protective effect, but compared to the vaccines used here it seems that China's is less effective, which might be contributing to their problem.
'Large scale, mass infections, even if they don't cause severe disease, are a cauldron of virus evolution which allow them to change and potentially become more lethal or less sensitive to existing immunity.'
While the figures are a fraction of the 970,000 people in the UK who are thought to be infected on any given day, vaccine uptake in China is lower and they have not had a recent booster rollout.
And the Chinese Covid vaccines — Sinovac and Sinopharm — are widely considered to be less effective than the mRNA vaccines used in most other nations.
A woman gets a Covid test at a testing site in Shanghai on November 28
Epidemic-prevention workers in protective suits line leave a testing station in Beijing amid outbreak of Covid
China's daily infections previously peaked at around 25,000 in April. Since then, it has been logging between 200 and 2,000 cases per day. But the rate began to shoot upwards one month ago and yesterday hit 39,791 — nine in 10 of which were asymptomatic, according to data from the National Health Commission
China's reported death rate remains tiny — with between zero and two virus fatalities reported per day since May
Despite strict Covid controls, China is currently logging just 27 cases per million people, compared to 5,731 in the UK
China logged zero Covid deaths per million people yesterday, compared to 0.9 per million in the US and 1.1 in the UK
On top of this, while low rates of transmission has seen China log a small virus death rate compared to the rest of the world, it means people have limited built-up natural immunity.
These factors encourage the virus to spread easier, with health bosses warning the virus is most likely to mutate when it is most prevalent.
UK Government scientists have previously warned that it is a 'realistic possibility' that a future variant, the next of which is expected to be called Pi, could kill up to one in three people — making it as deadly as MERS, which has a mortality rate of 35 per cent.
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, told MailOnline: 'China have got themselves into a terrible dilemma.
'China's zero Covid policy has resulted in far fewer deaths than most other countries including the UK and US. But it has also fostered vaccine hesitancy — why get vaccinated if you have eliminated the virus?
'There is a particular concern about the elderly in China where vaccination coverage of third booster shots is relatively low.
'Overall, a combination of vaccine hesitancy, the use of less effective vaccines (certainly compared to mRNA spike vaccines) and relatively low waves of previous infection (due to the zero-Covid policy) means that the population does not have a wall of protective immunity.
'Not only does this run the risk of widespread infection resulting in high levels of severe disease and death, but it also provides an ideal environment for the breeding of new variants.'
Professor Francois Balloux, an infectious disease expert based at University College London, told MailOnline that China will see a 'major Covid wave in the near future'.
He said: 'Given the low vaccination rate in the elderly and the fairly fragile state of Chinese healthcare capacity, a major surge in Covid could lead to considerable mortality and morbidity in China.'
However, he added: 'I'm less concerned about such a surge leading to the emergence of new viral variants.
'The major variants we have seen (Alpha, Delta and Omicron) likely arose from long-term infections in immunocompromised patients.
'As such, a major surge in China is not expected to drastically increase the risk of