China’s surge in Covid cases raises risk of new variants: experts

PARIS: An explosion of Covid-19 cases in China as the country lifts its zero-Covid measures could create a “potential breeding ground” for new variants to emerge, warn health experts.
China announced this week that incoming travelers will no longer have to self-quarantine from January 8, the latest major reversal of the tight restrictions that have kept the country largely closed to the world since the start of the pandemic.
While the country’s National Health Commission has stopped publishing daily case numbers, officials in several cities estimate that hundreds of thousands of people have been infected in recent weeks. Hospitals and crematoria were overwhelmed across the country.
With the virus now able to circulate among almost a fifth of the world’s population – almost all of whom lack immunity to previous infection and many of whom are still unvaccinated – other countries and experts fear that China could become fertile ground for new variants.
Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, told AFP that each new infection increases the risk of the virus mutating.
“The fact that 1.4 billion people are suddenly exposed to SARS-CoV-2 obviously creates conditions ripe for emerging variants,” Flahault said, referring to the virus that causes Covid-19 disease.
Bruno Lina, professor of virology at the French University of Lyon, told La Croix newspaper this week that China could become a “potential breeding ground for the virus”.
Soumya Swaminathan, who served as the World Health Organization’s chief scientist until November, said much of China’s population was vulnerable to infection partly because many older people had no not been vaccinated or boosted.
“We need to closely monitor any emergence of worrying variants,” she told the Indian Express newspaper website.
In response to the surge in cases, the United States, Italy, Japan, India and Malaysia announced this week that they would increase health measures for travelers from China.
The lack of transparent data from China – especially on viral genomic sequencing – makes it “increasingly difficult for public health officials to ensure that they will be able to identify any potential new variants and to take quick action to reduce the spread,” in the United States. officials announced on Tuesday.
India and Japan have already said they will impose mandatory PCR tests on all passengers arriving from China, a move that Flahault says could be a way around any delays in information from Beijing.
“If we succeed in sampling and sequencing all viruses identified in all travelers from China, we will know almost immediately that new variants will emerge and spread” in the country, he said.
Xu Wenbo, head of the virus control institute at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week hospitals across the country would collect patient samples and upload the sequencing information to a new database. national level, allowing the authorities to monitor possible new strains in real time.
More than 130 Omicron sublines have been newly detected in China over the past three months, he told reporters.
Among these were XXB and BQ.1 and their sub-lines, which have spread across the United States and parts of Europe in recent months as a swarm of sub-variants vie for dominance in the whole world.
However, BA.5.2 and BF.7 remain the main Omicron strains detected in China, Xu said, adding that the different sublines are likely to circulate together.
Flahault said “a soup” of more than 500 new Omicron subvariants had been identified over the past few months, although it was often difficult to tell where each first appeared.
“All variants, when more transmissible than previous dominants – such as BQ.1, B2.75.2, XBB, CH.1 or BF.7 – definitely represent threats, as they can cause new waves,” did he declare. .
“However, none of these known variants appear to pose particular new risks of more severe symptoms to our knowledge, although this may occur with new variants in the near future.”


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