Chinese vaccine plans spark hope for end of ‘zero COVID’

Chinese vaccine plans spark hope for end of ‘zero COVID’

WKMG News 6 & ClickOrlando

A campaign to vaccinate older Chinese has sparked hopes Beijing might roll back severe anti-virus controls that prompted protesters to demand President Xi Jinping resign, but the country faces daunting hurdles and up to a year of hard work before “zero COVID” can end.

Stock markets rose after the National Health Commission on Monday announced the long-awaited campaign. A low vaccination rate is one of the biggest obstacles to ending curbs that have confined millions of people to their homes, depressed the economy and kept most visitors out of China. Health officials did not say how long it might take.

A vaccination campaign will require months and China also needs to build up its hospitals and work out a long-term virus strategy, health experts and economists warn. They say “zero COVID” is likely to stay in place until mid-2023 and possibly as late as 2024.

“China is in no place right now to move away from its ‘zero-COVID’ policy toward a ‘living with COVID’ policy,” said Mark Williams, chief Asia economist for Capital Economics. “Health care capacity is very weak.”

China, where the virus first was detected in late 2019 in the central city of Wuhan, is the last major country trying to stop transmission completely while other countries are relaxing controls and trying to live with the virus that has killed at least 6.6 million people worldwide and sickened almost 650 million.

Chinese protesters accuse the ruling Communist Party of failing to outline a path away from restrictions that have repeatedly closed businesses and schools and suspended access to neighborhoods. The curbs have kept case numbers lower than other countries but are seen by the public and scientists as excessive.

Families who have been confined at home for up to four months say they lack reliable access to food and medicine. Others struggle to get treatment for other medical problems. Authorities faced public fury over reports two children who were in quarantine died after their parents said anti-virus controls hampered efforts to get emergency medical care.

The protests, the most widespread show of dissent in decades, erupted Friday after a fire in Urumqi in the northwest killed at least 10 people. That prompted angry questions online about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other controls. Authorities denied that, but the deaths became a focus of public anger over the human cost of “zero COVID.”

The ruling party has promised to make restrictions less disruptive and eased some controls this week following protests in Shanghai, Beijing and at least six other major cities. But party leaders said they were sticking to “zero COVID“ and gave no sign when it might end.

On Wednesday, the Health Commission reported 37,828 new cases in the past 24 hours, including 33,540 without symptoms. The official death toll stands at 5,233 out of 319,536 confirmed cases, compared with 1.1 million deaths in the United States out of almost 100 million infections.

Beijing has tried to discredit protesters by accusing them of working for “foreign forces,” a reference to long-running complaints that Washington and other Western governments are trying to sabotage China’s economic and political rise.

On Tuesday, the ruling party legal affairs committee vowed to “resolutely crack down on the infiltration and sabotage activities of hostile forces.” Its statement promising to carry out the spirit of a congress last month where Xi, China’s most powerful figure since at least the 1980s, awarded himself a third five-year term as leader.

The statement didn’t mention the protests and echoed routine declarations issued after such party meetings. But it was a reminder of the ruling party’s determination to enforce its will and of its hostility to opposition.

The National Health Commission said its campaign will encourage people over 60 to be vaccinated.

Many have avoided vaccines due to safety worries and because, with few cases in China, their infection risk was low.

The commission said it will send out mobile vaccination units to reach people in their 70s and 80s who can’t leave home.

Nine in 10 Chinese have been vaccinated but only 66% of people over 80 have gotten one shot, while 40% have received a booster shot, according to the Commission. It said 86% of people over 60 are vaccinated.

State media have described unvaccinated elderly people as at “highest risk” from the virus.

“We hope elderly friends can actively complete the vaccination as soon as possible,” said a commission spokesman, Mi Feng.

China relies heavily on its own Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, along with several others made domestically. It has not approved the mRNA vaccines like the Pfizer shot, even though a Chinese company bought distribution rights in 2020.

Last year, the country’s top infectious diseases official acknowledged those homegrown vaccines offered low protection against COVID-19.

Still, ahead of Tuesday’s announcement an infectious disease expert on Shanghai’s COVID-19 team expressed confidence China can emerge from COVID with the right vaccination program.

“Our diagnosis, treatment and vaccines have reached a very high level,” Zhang Wenhong told a Nov. 18 medical conference in the southern city of Haikou. “We are fully capable of finally taming the coronavirus.”

However, China’s small, overworked health care system, especially in the poor, populous countryside, could be overwhelmed if infections spiral as restrictions are relaxed.

China has 4.3 hospital beds per person, barely half of the average of eight in neighboring Mongolia, a much poorer country, according to the World Health Organization. Japan has 13 and South Korea has 12.5.

“China will never lift COVID restrictions completely like other countries,” said Yu Changping, a respiratory specialist at People’s Hospital of Wuhan University.

“The epidemic will not disappear in the next three or five years and may never,” Yu said. “It is a long-term task for China’s prevention and control.”

The outbreaks that began in October prompted affected communities to close shops and offices. Factories were required to isolate workers from outside contact.

Economists estimate those areas account for up to one-third of China’s economic output. Some forecasts say China’s annual growth will stay below 3%, less than half of 2021′s 8.1% expansion.

While case numbers are low, “there is definitely a risk that ‘zero COVID’ just fails at this point. It spreads rapidly everywhere,” said Williams. “I think that the response from the authorities would be to go back to the playbook from January, February 2020 and lock everywhere down.”

Twitter ends enforcement of COVID misinformation policy

Twitter ends enforcement of COVID misinformation policy

WKMG News 6 & ClickOrlando

Twitter will no longer enforce its policy against COVID-19 misinformation, raising concerns among public health experts that the change could have serious consequences if it discourages vaccination and other efforts to combat the still-spreading virus.

Eagle-eyed users spotted the change Monday night, noting that a one-sentence update had been made to Twitter’s online rules: “Effective November 23, 2022, Twitter is no longer enforcing the COVID-19 misleading information policy.”

By Tuesday, some Twitter accounts were testing the new boundaries and celebrating the platform’s hands-off approach, which comes after Twitter was purchased by Elon Musk.

“This policy was used to silence people across the world who questioned the media narrative surrounding the virus and treatment options,” tweeted Dr. Simone Gold, a physician and leading purveyor of COVID-19 misinformation. “A win for free speech and medical freedom!”

Twitter’s decision to no longer remove false claims about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines disappointed many public health officials, however, who said it could lead to more false claims about the virus, or the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

“Bad news,” tweeted epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding, who urged people not to flee Twitter but to stay and stand up for accurate information about the virus. “Stay folks — do NOT cede the town square to them!”

The virus, meanwhile, continues to spread. Nationally, new COVID cases averaged nearly 38,800 a day as of Monday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University — far lower than last winter but a vast undercount because of reduced testing and reporting. About 28,100 people with COVID were hospitalized daily and about 313 died, according to the most recent federal daily averages.

Cases and deaths were up from two weeks earlier. Yet a fifth of the U.S. population hasn’t been vaccinated, most Americans haven’t gotten the latest boosters, and many have stopped wearing masks.

Musk, who has himself spread COVID misinformation on Twitter, has signaled an interest in rolling back many of the platform’s previous rules meant to combat misinformation.

Last week, Musk said he would grant “amnesty” to account holders who had been kicked off Twitter. He’s also reinstated the accounts for several people who spread COVID misinformation, including that of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose personal account was suspended this year for repeatedly violating Twitter’s COVID rules.

Greene’s most recent tweets include ones questioning the effectiveness of masks and making baseless claims about the safety of COVID vaccines.

Since the pandemic began, platforms like Twitter and Facebook have struggled to respond to a torrent of misinformation about the virus, its origins and the response to it.

Under the policy enacted in January 2020, Twitter prohibited false claims about COVID-19 that the platform determined could lead to real-world harms. More than 11,000 accounts were suspended for violating the rules, and nearly 100,000 pieces of content were removed from the platform, according to Twitter’s latest numbers.

Despite its rules prohibiting COVID misinformation, Twitter has struggled with enforcement. Posts making bogus claims about home remedies or vaccines could still be found, and it was difficult on Tuesday to identify exactly how the platform’s rules may have changed.

Messages left with San Francisco-based Twitter seeking more information about its policy on COVID-19 misinformation were not immediately returned Tuesday.

A search for common terms associated with COVID misinformation yielded lots of misleading content, but also automatic links to helpful resources about the virus as well as authoritative sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 coordinator, said Tuesday that the problem of COVID-19 misinformation is far larger than one platform, and that policies prohibiting COVID misinformation weren’t the best solution anyway.

Speaking at a Knight Foundation forum Tuesday, Jha said misinformation about the virus spread for a number of reasons, including legitimate uncertainty about a deadly illness. Simply prohibiting certain kinds of content isn’t going to help people find good information, or make them feel more confident about what they’re hearing from their medical providers, he said.

“I think we all have a collective responsibility,” Jha said of combating misinformation about COVID. “The consequences of not getting this right — of spreading that misinformation — is literally tens of thousands of people dying unnecessarily.”

AP Interview: IMF chief urges targeted COVID policy in China

AP Interview: IMF chief urges targeted COVID policy in China

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It is time for China to move away from massive lockdowns and toward a more targeted approach to COVID-19, the head of the International Monetary Fund said days after widespread protests broke out, a change that would ease the impact to a world economy already struggling with high inflation, an energy crisis and disrupted food supply.

IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva urged a “recalibration” of China’s tough “zero-COVID” approach aimed at isolating every case “exactly because of the impact it has on both people and on the economy.”

Georgieva made the comments in a wide-ranging interview Tuesday with The Associated Press in which she also cautioned it is too early for the U.S. Federal Reserve to back off on its interest rate increases and held out hope that an energy crisis driven by Russia’s war in Ukraine will speed the push into renewables in Europe. She also called increasing hunger in developing countries “the world’s most significant solvable problem.”

In China, protests erupted over the weekend in several cities and Hong Kong in the biggest show of public dissent in decades. Authorities have eased some controls but have showed no sign of backing off their larger strategy that has confined millions of people to their homes for months at a time.

“We see the importance of moving away from massive lockdowns, being very targeted in restrictions,” Georgieva said Tuesday in Berlin. “So that targeting allows to contain the spread of COVID without significant economic costs.”

Georgieva also urged China to look at vaccination policies and focus on vaccinating the “most vulnerable people.”

A low rate of vaccinations among the elderly is a major reason Beijing has resorted to lockdowns, while the emergence of more-contagious variants has put increasing stress on the effort to prevent any spread.

Lockdowns have slowed everything from travel to retail traffic to car sales in the world’s second-largest economy. Georgieva urged it “to adjust the overall approach to how China assesses supply chain functioning with an eye on the spillover impact it has on the rest of the world.”

The Washington-based IMF expected the Chinese economy to grow only 3.2% this year, below the global average for the year, a rare occurrence.

The Communist Party has taken steps in the direction Georgieva recommends, switching to isolating buildings or neighborhoods with infections instead of whole cities and made other changes it says are aimed at reducing the human and economic cost. But a spike in infections since October has prompted local authorities facing pressure from above to impose quarantines and other restrictions that residents say are too extreme.

Asked about criticism of the crackdown on protests, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman has defended Beijing’s anti-virus strategy and said the public’s legal rights were protected by law.

The government is trying to “provide maximum protection to people’s lives and health while minimizing the COVID impact on social and economic development,” Zhao Lijian said.

While China’s policy ripples out worldwide, Georgieva said the greatest risk facing the global economy is high inflation that requires central banks to raise interest rates, making credit more expensive for consumers and businesses. Coupled with that is the need for governments to take care of the most vulnerable people without undermining central bank efforts with excess spending.

“Policymakers are faced with the very difficult time in the year ahead,” she said. “They have to be disciplined in the fight against inflation. Why? Because inflation undermines the foundation for growth, and it hurts the poor people the most.”

Asked if the U.S. Federal Reserve should pause interest rate increases that are strengthening the dollar and putting pressure on poorer countries, Georgieva said that “the Fed has no option but to stay the course until credible decline in inflation.”

“They owe it to the U.S. economy, they owe it to the world economy, because what happens in the United States if inflation does not get under control, can have also spillover impacts for the rest of the world,” the Bulgarian IMF chief said.

Inflation data are still too high in the U.S. and Europe and “the data at this point says: too early to step back,” Georgieva said.

She warned that international tensions between the China and the West and between Russia and the West threatened to restrict trade and its beneficial effect on economic growth and prosperity. She added that while there are concerns about supply chains disrupted by the pandemic, “we have to work harder on finding a way to counter these protectionist instincts” while being honest about supply concerns.

Georgieva said the world was already seeing signs of increased hunger before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupted grain supplies to Africa and the Middle East. More investment in resilient agriculture and support for small farmers as well as efforts to reduce food waste would be part of the solution, she said.

“We have to admit in the wealthiest societies, in the wealthier families, that we waste food on a daily basis, even in quantities that are sufficient to feed the rest of the world,” she said. “Look, hunger is the world’s most significant solvable problem. It is solvable. And yet not only we haven’t solved it, but in the last years, hunger has been going up and up.”

The world needs “a focus on food security in a comprehensive way that reduces waste, increases productivity, and most importantly, focuses more attention on small-scale farming, where a great deal of livelihoods of people, especially in developing countries like that, would go a long way to bring this solvable problem finally to an end,” she said.

Russia’s war also created an energy crisis after Moscow cut off most natural gas supplies to Europe as Western allies supported war-torn Ukraine. The resulting high energy prices have created an opportunity to “accelerate the transition to low-carbon energy supplies” through incentives for green investments.

EXPLAINER: Why are China’s COVID rules so strict?

EXPLAINER: Why are China’s COVID rules so strict?

WKMG News 6 & ClickOrlando

At the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, China set out its “zero-COVID” measures that were harsh, but not out of line with what many other countries were doing to try and contain the virus. While most other nations saw the health and safety regulations as temporary until vaccines were widely available, however, China has stuck steadfastly to its strategy.

Weary of the policy that has confined millions of people to their homes in an attempt to isolate every infection, and with an eye on the freedoms now enjoyed elsewhere around the world, protests have broken out around China in recent days.

Though some anti-virus restrictions have been eased in some places, the ruling Communist Party has affirmed its “zero-COVID” strategy. Here are some of the regulations:

TESTS AND QUARANTINE FOR INBOUND PASSENGERS

Inbound travelers need to take a PCR test before flying and quarantine in a hotel for five days and at home for three days upon arrival. That may seem strict, but prior to updated regulations earlier this month, travelers needed to take two PCR tests before flying and quarantine for seven days in a hotel and three days at home. Earlier the quarantine period was 14 days. China also ended its “circuit breaker” policy of shutting down a flight for a week or two if a certain percentage of passengers aboard tested positive for COVID-19, with the length of the ban dependent upon how many had the virus.

ISOLATION ON DOMESTIC ROUTES

Travelers on domestic flights, trains or buses who are close contacts of someone with COVID-19 need to quarantine for five days at designated sites, plus three days at home. Prior to November changes, the quarantine time was longer and the close contacts of the person with close contact to someone with COVID also needed to isolate. People who visited areas in China deemed “high-risk” also need to quarantine for seven days at home.

GREEN CODE

Inside China, individuals need to show their personal “green code”—- indicating they are COVID negative—- when entering public places like shopping malls and restaurants, or when using public transit. Everyone must register with their identification papers, and the code is then displayed through a smartphone app. Staying “green” means not contracting COVID-19, not being a close contact of someone with the virus, and not visiting areas deemed to be a risk. If there is an outbreak in your area, local authorities may require regular testing to keep the code green. In Beijing at the moment, for example, residents need to undergo a rapid COVID test at least every 48 hours at a government-approved facility.

WHO GOES INTO LOCKDOWN?

China has reacted quickly and decisively to any detection of COVID-19, and has locked down parts of, or entire cities. At the moment the central urban area of Chongqing, with about 10.3 million people, is in lockdown as is part of Guangzhou.

The decision on what to lock down depends upon the scale of the outbreak, and smaller lockdowns of buildings, building compound areas or city districts is common. Entire apartment building units are locked down if a single resident is found to have COVID, and people are not allowed to leave for at least five days. Food and other essential supplies can be ordered for delivery.

Similarly, office buildings are locked down if someone in the building tests positive for COVID until the building can be disinfected, a process that usually takes several days.

OTHER RESTRICTIONS

China has in place many other regulations that would be familiar to most from the early months of the pandemic. Social distancing is encouraged, and people have to wear masks in public venues. In areas where there is believed to be a risk of COVID transmission, there are restrictions on large gatherings, restaurants are closed for indoor dining, and enhanced disinfection measures are required at public venues.

Much like the bubble measures imposed for the 2022 Winter Olympic s in Beijing, facilities where people are deemed most at risk, like nursing homes, have so-called “closed-loop management” plans in place.

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AP news researcher Caroline Chen and Yu Bing contributed to this report.

China’s ‘zero-COVID’ limits saved lives but no clear exit

China’s ‘zero-COVID’ limits saved lives but no clear exit

WKMG News 6 & ClickOrlando

China’s strategy of controlling the coronavirus with lockdowns, mass testing and quarantines has provoked the greatest show of public dissent against the ruling Communist Party in decades.

Most protesters on the mainland and in Hong Kong have focused their anger on restrictions that confine families to their homes for months. Global health experts have criticized China’s methods as unsustainable.

A look at China’s “zero-COVID” approach:

CHINA’S POLICY

President Xi Jinping’s government has pursued a policy of lockdowns, repeated testing of millions of people and lengthy quarantines for overseas arrivals in an attempt to tamp down spread.

At the beginning of the pandemic, other countries also had lockdowns and other restrictions that were eventually eased. Initially, the strategy in China succeeded at holding down the death toll. But it now means China’s population has very little exposure to the virus. And China is using only domestically developed vaccines that are less effective than those widely used elsewhere, and not enough elderly people are fully protected.

China’s continued reliance on lockdowns has been “rather draconian,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” It “really doesn’t make public health sense.”

NO ‘PLAN B’

China has had far fewer deaths compared to other large nations and one of the lowest deaths per capita in the world. The official death toll stands at 5,233, the majority during the initial outbreak in early 2020.

The strict policies saved lives, but cannot be sustained, said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“They do not have a plan B,” said Mokdad, adding that China’s approach ultimately will lead to surges in deaths and strain on hospitals. “They cannot lock the country forever.”

Julian Tang, a virologist at Britain’s University of Leicester, agreed that China’s attempt to stop every single case of COVID-19 is “simply impossible” and that it will do what most of the rest of the world has done and learn to live with the virus.

“There is no endgame for ‘zero-COVID,’” Tang said.

While China’s tough rules helped to avoid the thousands of infections, hospitalizations and deaths seen in the West during the first year of the pandemic, that disappeared with the emergence of the super-infectious omicron variant, Tang said.

“The only thing to do is to accept that there is going to be a certain level of disease,” Tang said.

GRIM PREDICTIONS

Dr. Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia, said China had now backed itself into a corner and warned that exiting would be painful. He said the value of measures like lockdowns and mask-wearing was mostly to delay as many infections as possible until vaccines were available.

“Unfortunately, the vaccines in China were not very good,” Hunter said, adding that vaccination levels of its most vulnerable people are low and much of the protection the shots provided has now faded for those immunized long ago.

Hunter said restrictions should be lifted incrementally to avoid hospitals being overwhelmed and said other restrictions, like mask-wearing, could be held in place to reduce spread as much as possible. He said China will eventually have to open its borders, a step that will inevitably bring a surge of disease.

“The surge will peak very quickly and also fade rather quickly. But while they are going through it, it will be dreadful,” he said.

The health analytics firm Airfinity released projections on Monday estimating that up to about 2 million people in China could be at risk of death if the country were to lift its “zero-COVID” policy, given its low vaccination rates and the lack of natural immunity among its population.

Local Chinese authorities eased some regulations after recent rallies, but the government showed no sign of backing down on its larger coronavirus strategy.

VACCINES AS ‘WAY OUT’

Dr. Bharat Pankhania, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Exeter, said China should import mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

“The scientific answer is very clear,” Pankhania said.

He acknowledged that it might be politically challenging for China to acknowledge the shortcomings of its homegrown shots, but said the country needed to find a way to change course.

“This should not be about saving face,” he said. “The Chinese population is clearly fed up with lockdown after lockdown and the quickest way out is to immunize as fast as possible.”

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.