“When we talk about the zero-Covid strategy, we don’t think that it is sustainable, considering the behavior of the virus now and what we anticipate in the future,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a media briefing Tuesday, citing the increased transmissibility of Omicron.
“We have discussed this issue with Chinese experts and we indicated that the approach will not be sustainable…I think a shift will be very important,” he said.
The comments from Tedros came after Xi delivered a stern warning to opponents of his zero-Covid policy last Thursday, pledging to “resolutely fight against any words and acts that distort, doubt or deny” it.
China’s zero-tolerance approach of snap lockdowns, mass testing and quarantining has protected the majority of the public from Covid over the past two years, but it has drawn rising dissent as the lockdowns become more stringent and frequent amid the fast spread of Omicron.
But the Chinese leadership has insisted on the strict measures, saying a relaxation will “inevitably lead to large scale infections, a large number of serious illness and deaths” due to the country’s large number of elderly people and insufficient medical resources.
New modeling by researchers mostly from Shanghai’s Fudan University predicted China could face over 1.5 million Omicron deaths if its zero-Covid measures are lifted without increased vaccine coverage or access to antiviral therapies.
The research estimates that in the event of an uncontrolled Omicron outbreak, China’s national healthcare system would be completely overwhelmed, with demand for the country’s 64,000 ICU beds outstripping supply 15.6-times over, for a period of at least 44 days.
But that scenario could be avoided, according to the modeling, if the Chinese government focuses on increasing “accessibility to vaccines and antiviral therapies.”
More than 88% of Chinese people have been fully vaccinated, but immunization is much lower among the elderly. As of March 17, only half of people aged over 80 in China have been fully vaccinated, and less than 20% of that vulnerable age group have received a booster. Unlike most countries, elderly people were not originally prioritized in China’s vaccination campaigns.
Since the latest outbreak, Chinese officials have vowed to speed up vaccination among the elderly. But in locked-down areas, it is virtually impossible to get vaccinated as residents are confined to their homes and allowed to go out only for Covid testing.
The UN’s official press account on China’s Twitter-like Weibo posted Tedro’s comments early on Wednesday morning, drawing a wave of sarcastic comments from Chinese users.
“Resolutely fight against any words and acts that distort, doubt or deny our country’s epidemic prevention and control policies! Down with the World Health Organization!” a top reply said.
“Should the UN’s verified account be blocked this time?” another said.
By mid-morning, the post was no longer viewable on Weibo “due to the author’s privacy setting.” It is unclear under what circumstances the setting was changed.
A Weibo hashtag of Tedros’ name has also been censored, with images featuring his face being scrubbed from the platform.
On WeChat, an article from the UN’s official account that included Tedros’ comments has been “banned from sharing due to a violation of relevant laws and regulations” as of Wednesday morning. Video clips of Tedro’s speech have also been removed from the platform.