Fears that China’s lifting of its zero-COVID policy could result in fresh coronavirus variants seem to have not (yet) materialized.
A study published in The Lancet on Wednesday found there had been no new COVID-19 variants in the country since it lifted its draconian policy last year, a move which triggered a surge in cases and deaths.
The analysis by researchers in China of more than 400 new cases in Beijing between November 14 and December 20 shows that more than 90 percent were of the Omicron subvariants BA.5.2 and BF.7.
These variants are similar to the ones circulating in the EU/EEA during the fall of 2022, before the surge in cases in China, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said, and there is no evidence they pose a greater risk compared with those circulating in the EU/EEA now.
China has been criticized for its lack of transparency throughout the pandemic, including during this most recent wave of infections.
But the EU’s disease agency, the ECDC, confirmed that its own analysis — which included sequencing cases detected through airport arrivals in several European countries and wastewater analysis of airplanes arriving in Europe from China — found that BA.5.2 and BF.7 were dominant, although they cautioned that this wastewater data is “quite limited and are still being verified.”
While the authors of the Lancet study conducted their analysis in Beijing, they write that the results “could be considered a snapshot of China.”
But others caution against such a leap.
“The SARS-CoV-2 molecular epidemiological profile in one region of a vast and densely populated country cannot be extrapolated to the entire country,” write Wolfgang Preiser and Tongai Maponga of Stellenbosch University in South Africa in a linked comment in The Lancet. The two were not involved in the study.
“In other regions of China, other evolutionary dynamics might unfold, possibly including animal species that could become infected by human beings and spill back a further evolved virus,” they write.
The prevalence of each of the two variants — BF.7 and BA.5.2 — varies from province to province, World Health Organization spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told POLITICO, referring to data from the China CDC.
China’s lifting of its zero-COVID policies at the end of last year led to EU countries recommending a raft of travel measures for visitors from China.
At its last meeting on Friday, the EU’s de facto emergency crisis forum, the IPCR, decided to maintain these measures for now. The issue will be reevaluated at the next IPCR meeting scheduled for February 16.
Europe’s airport lobby, ACI Europe, says it would like passenger testing to be dropped.
“We support getting away from testing passengers as a way to track COVID-19, especially in the context of the comprehensive assessment issued by the ECDC on the lack of expected impact of COVID-19 surge in China on the epidemiological situation in the EU/EEA. Airports and airlines call for any travel recommendations to be scientifically driven and risk-based, which is regrettably not the case now,”Agata Łyżnik, communications manager at ACI Europe, the European airports’ lobby, told POLITICO.
With additional reporting from Mari Eccles.