US and world health officials concerned about China’s transparency on virus spread

People receive an inhaled COVID-19 vaccine at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Bijie, Guizhou province, China, December 29, 2022.

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US and world health officials say Beijing is not sharing enough information about the spread of Covid-19 in China, leaving the international community in the dark about the scale and severity of the current wave of outbreaks. infection in the most populous country in the world.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a statement on Wednesday, said China’s lack of transparency could delay the identification of new Covid variants that pose a public health threat. China shares very few genomic sequences used to identify such variants, according to the CDC.

The CDC on Wednesday announced new testing requirements for airline passengers whose travel originates in China. All passengers, regardless of nationality or vaccination status, must be tested for Covid no later than two days before their flight to the United States and present a negative result to the airline before departure. The requirements come into effect on January 5.

India, Italy, Japan and Taiwan have also imposed Covid testing requirements on airline passengers arriving from China. The Chinese government is battling a wave of infections after easing its strict zero-Covid policy following social unrest earlier this year.

A US federal health official, in a call with reporters on Wednesday, said the Biden administration has very limited information on the number of new Covid cases, hospitalizations and especially deaths in China. . Testing and case reports have also declined in the country, making the true infection rate difficult to determine, the official said.

China’s zero-Covid policy, which aimed to crush epidemics with harsh measures, means that a large part of the population has no immunity against highly transmissible variants of omicron, the official said. As a result, the Biden administration predicts that large numbers of people will be infected relatively quickly in China.

“What worries us is a new variant that could actually emerge in China,” said the official, who declined to be named as a condition of the press call. “With so many people in China affected in such a short time, there is a chance, a probability that a new variant will emerge.”

The latest genomic sequencing data shared by health authorities in China indicates that Covid variants circulating in the country are similar to those known in the rest of the world, according to a statement this week from GISAID, a public database based in Germany. .

In the past 180 days, China has sequenced and shared 412 Covid cases with GISAID, compared to more than 576,000 shared by US health authorities in China shared less than 1% of reported and sequenced Covid cases, while the US shared more than 4% and UK almost 12%.

The World Health Organization has also called on China to share more information about what is happening on the ground as the virus spreads.

“WHO is very concerned about the development of the situation in China with the increase in reported cases of serious illnesses,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the global health agency, during a meeting. press briefing in Geneva last week.

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“In order to carry out a full risk assessment of the situation on the ground, WHO needs more detailed information on the severity of the disease, hospital admissions and critical care support requirements. “, said Tedros.

The WHO has largely anecdotal reports of emergency rooms and, in some cases, intensive care units filling up in China, according to Dr. Mike Ryan, head of the global agency’s emergencies program. of health.

“We don’t have full knowledge of the impact,” Ryan said of China’s Covid wave at the press conference in Geneva last week.

Dr Maria van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid technical officer, said last week that omicron subvariants BA.5, BQ.1, BF.7 and BA.2.75 are all circulating in China. XBB has also been detected in China, which is one of the most immune evasive variants to date.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, in a report released Dec. 15, said a massive wave of infection in China is inevitable as Beijing eases its zero-Covid policy. There will be a large number of serious diseases in the elderly population and the death toll will be considerable, according to the report.

China faces a difficult situation because its locally developed vaccines are not as effective as mRNA injections from Pfizer and Moderna. Immunization coverage among the elderly population in China also lags behind other countries.

“One in seven people on the planet lives in China and accelerating vaccination, protecting the health care system during this time, is in the interests of seven out of seven people on this planet,” Ryan said.

The United States has offered China mRNA Covid vaccines and other support, but Beijing has declined the offer, the federal health official said during the call Wednesday.

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