Wednesday, December 21, 2022

China's COVID surge could spawn new deadly variant

China's COVID wave has spurred fears that a dangerous new variant could emerge which "could be more contagious, more deadly, or evade drugs, vaccines and detection".

The warning comes as a tsunami of COVID-19 infections sweep across China with speculation that the wave could see more than a million die [Time / CNN].

The situation in China is unique because of the path it has followed throughout the pandemic. While almost every other part of the world has battled infections and embraced vaccinations with potent mRNA shots to varying degrees, China largely sidestepped both. The result is a population with low levels of immunity facing a wave of disease caused by the most contagious strain of the virus yet to circulate.

According to official sources, Chinese cities are currently being hit by the highly transmissible Omicron strain, mostly BF.7 which is the main variant spreading in Beijing and is contributing to a wider surge of COVID infections in the country.

BF.7 is a sub-lineage of the Omicron variant BA.5, and has the strongest infection ability since it is highly transmissible, has a shorter incubation period, and a higher capacity to cause reinfection or infect even those who are vaccinated.

The BF.7 strain has been found in several other countries, including the US and UK and European nations such as Belgium, Germany, France and Denmark. Recently it has also recently been detected in India.

However there is rising concern the wave of infections sweeping through China could spawn a new more deadly variant.

"There will certainly be more omicron subvariants developing in China in the coming days, weeks and months, but what the world must anticipate in order to recognize it early and take rapid action is a completely new variant of concern," says Daniel Lucey, a fellow at the Infectious Diseases Society of America and professor at Dartmouth University's Geisel School of Medicine. "It could be more contagious, more deadly, or evade drugs, vaccines and detection from existing diagnostics."

This is concerning enough. But even more concerning is that studies into sequencing changes in the virus has dropped significantly in the last few months. Fewer people are testing, fewer samples are being taken and as a result laboratories around the world are receiving fewer samples to analyse.

The global pullback from sequencing COVID could mean a new, possibly more dangerous variant evades detection until it's spreading widely. The pandemic that much of the West has thought to be largely over could just be beginning.

Even if a new variant fails to emerge, the toll on China's economy could have dramatic repercussions in other ways.

The US is already raising concerns that the chaos brought about by the wave of infections in China could seriously hurt the global economy and further constrain corporate supply chains.

In a world already turned upside down by the pandemic and more recently by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, any significant collapse of China's economy could be devastating.

[Sources: The Wire / CBS / Financial Post / Business Today / Reuters / NCBI /  Daniele Focosi, MD PhD MSc : Twitter ]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Surge of COVID cases spreads across China

COVID cases are rising significantly across China after a sudden end to its strict zero-COVID policies that prompted a series of protests across the country.

Years of strict lockdowns, widespread testing and other restrictions prompted many people to come to the streets to vent their anger. A number of deaths on a block of flats in Xinjiang province was the catalyst to the protests which saw thousands calling for an end to the zero-COVID policy.

In the Xinjiang incident footage appeared to show firefighters unable to get close enough to direct water jets at the base of the fire. Observers suggested that the barriers put up around the compound to prevent people leaving had in turn prevented emergency services from getting close enough to put out the fire. Ten people died in the tragedy [BBC].

While it was clear that the Chinese government needed to relax restrictions in order to prevent widespread social unrest, the swift opening up has created its own problems.

Authorities are reportedly saying that it is now 'impossible' to track the rising number of COVID cases and are no longer including asymptomatic cases in numbers that are made public.

On Tuesday this week, 13th December, there were 2,291 symptomatic cases officially reported across China. However this appears at odds with reports from residents and health services of rampant infections, particularly in the capital Beijing.

Footage and posts on Twitter and on Chinese social media showed medical facilities and hospitals overwhelmed with people showing signs of fever.

Pictures at a fever clinic in Chongzhou City People's Hospital (崇州市人民医院) in Chengdu, Sichuan, showed hundreds of people seeking medical attention.

Meanwhile pictures posted on the 10th December showed people lining up for intravenous drips at a local clinic in Wuhan's Jiang'an District (江岸区). Intravenous therapy is much sought after in China, even for minor ailments. As many as 10.4 billion doses of IV medicine were administered in China in 2009, averaging eight per person, far beyond the international average of 2.5 to 3.3 doses per person [Global Times]. 

As the situation in some cities grew worse there were reports of some people refusing to leave quarantine camps such as one in Guangzhou's Pazhou (琶洲).

As numbers of people suffering from fever and flu-like symptoms have grown, pictures have emerged of packed hospitals in Nanjing in Jiangsu province and in cities in Sichuan province where hundreds queued for medicine.

With the hospitals packed some people have been seen being treated on the streets. Pictures on social media showed Dazhou (达州) in Sichuan where sick people were sitting in plastic chairs receiving IV drips in the street.

The sudden increase in demand for care has seen shortages in medicine and also of COVID tests.

There has been concern amongst those who are not sick with some calling abroad to friends and relatives for advice on what they should do.

Official state media outlet China Daily reported Beijing had seen a more than six-fold increase in presentations to hospitals in the last week, and 16 times more to fever clinics.

Li Ang, deputy director of Beijing Municipal Health Commission, told media that on 9th December there were 31,000 calls to emergency medical services, six times more than average.

Anecdotally, residents are describing many friends, families, and co-workers falling ill with COVID, with one telling the Guardian it had "ripped through" the city with long lines of people seen outside many hospitals such as the fever clinic of Beijing Friendship Hospital in the Xicheng district of the capital.

Employees at businesses, schools and embassies have described huge numbers of colleagues suddenly calling in sick with the virus, or having to stay at home to care for family members. James Zimmerman, a Beijing-based lawyer, said on Twitter that 90% of people from his Beijing office had COVID.

Many businesses are having difficulty finding enough staff who have not gotten infected. Sanlitun, one of the capital's most popular shopping districts, was deserted despite having its anti-COVID-19 fences taken down in recent days [Al Jazeera]. 

Janis Mackey Frayer, an NBC correspondent based in Beijing, wrote on Twitter that it was "impossible to understate the whiplash" in the city "going from 'zero COVID' to COVID everywhere in about 48 hrs."

There are "lineups at fever clinics, pharmacies & testing booths (though it feels moot)," she adds, "In many ways, the pandemic is now starting in China."

Selina Wang, CNN's correspondent described the opening up as "messy and uneven."

"For the first time since the start of the pandemic, COVID is spreading like wildfire in Beijing," she wrote on Twitter.

"People either have it or are scared to get it" and the "only crowds are outside of hospitals & pharmacies." She also spoke of many struggling to get medicine.

Residents have complained of long lines at pharmacies and cold medication selling out. Agence France-Presse reported a black market had also emerged for rapid tests and some medications being sold at inflated prices by "dealers" whose contacts are being shared on social media groups.

Much of the chaos has come about due to there being little planning in terms of opening up. The problem has been compounded by the fact that many people have only had 2 vaccinations of the Sinovac or Sinopharm vaccines which are seen as being less effective against the far more transmissible Omicron variant.

China has so far been resilient to approving the mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna which have been shown to be more efficacious. However, Pfizer's oral treatment, Paxlovid is available in China, although it is out of reach of many Chinese given it's priced at more than $400 a box.

The real concern, much less talked about, is whether the surge in cases could result in significant deaths.

In the UK, which has also seen an uptick in cases in recent weeks [Daily Mail], the death toll is around 2,000 per month, this in a largely well vaccinated population of 60+M. With China having a population of some 1.4Bn people the death toll could run into tens of thousands each month without a rapid booster campaign especially amongst the elderly who have been reticent to take up the jab.

The other concern is that the wave of cases could act as a breeding ground for a new more deadly variant to emerge. Then the world really would find itself in a dark place once again.

tvnewswatch, London, UK