BEIJING — A dangerous new variant of Covid-19 is unlikely to be spreading in China, said Dr. Chris Murray, director of a Seattle-based University of Washington health research center.
His comments on Friday on CNBC’s “Asian squawk boxIt comes as US health officials warned this week about the possibility of a new Covid variant emerging in China’s national outbreak, and how Beijing’s lack of transparency could delay the detection of risks to public health.
Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, noted that there were likely billions of omicron infections worldwide this year, but no new covid variants have emerged, just omicron subvariants.
“That’s why I would put the risk quite low that there is a dangerous new variant in China,” he said. He noted that it would take “some very special features” for a new variant to emerge and replace omicron.
The variant was first detected in South Africa over a year ago. Omicron is much more transmissible, but causes less severe disease than when Covid first emerged in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.
Unlike much of the world, China’s Covid wave this month is affecting a population of 1.4 billion people who are mostly infected for the first time. Only domestically made vaccines are widely available to the locals.
This month, Beijing suddenly relaxed many Covid-related movement restrictions. On Monday, the authorities also said they would lift the incoming quarantine from January 8 and resume passport processing for Chinese citizens who want to travel abroad for tourism.
The United States, Japan and a few other countries this week announced new Covid testing requirements for travelers from China.
Need for hospitalization, death data
Murray said a full travel ban, if proposed, “would make no sense” and would “set no testing requirements.”
“The argument that is being made is that we need more transparency about what is happening in China,” Murray said.
“The first sign of any new variant will actually be a change in hospitalization or death rate associated with Covid, and not just a lot of infections, because we know that omicron does that,” he said.
China’s National Health Commission said on Sunday it would stop publishing daily data on Covid infections and deaths. However, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention has maintained daily reports that, along with hospital discharges, only show thousands of new covid infections a day and a handful of deaths. Covid tests are no longer mandatory in China.
Statements on the website of China’s center for disease control show that its director, Shen Hongbing, held online meetings this month with his US counterpart and the head of the UK’s Health Security Agency.
As for the theory that viruses adapt to keep their hosts alive, Murray cautioned that it “applies over a fairly long period of time, not months or years.”
Genomic research shows that it is still possible for a mutation that causes more severe disease to emerge, Murray said. “I think it would be unwise for us to assume that all variants are going to be like omicron.”
A study published in Nature Medicine in November it also found that getting infected with covid-19 more than once increases the risk of organ failure and death.