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Epidemiologist says surge in COVID infections in China worth watching but not panicking

An unprecedented surge in COVID-19 infections in China has led to the country’s “COVID zero” policy being lifted, and some other countries are now requiring travelers from China to test negative for COVID before boarding an aircraft.

News from China is noteworthy, but should not be a source of serious concern for the US, the expert said. Dr. Jennifer Buey. Buei is an epidemiologist, Chair of Global Health at Georgetown University and Chair of Tang Chinese Policy at the Rand Corporation. She spoke to the Texas Standard about the implications of the latest COVID trends in China. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:

Texas Standard: Tell us a little more about what officials are actually seeing in China and how it compares to previous periods of the pandemic. How concerned should people be?

Jennifer Bowie: Since Dec. 1, when the Chinese vice premier effectively changed his zero COVID policy, we have seen a tsunami of infections in China. One of Beijing’s leading epidemiologists most recently estimated that 80% of Beijing’s population has been infected in the past few weeks. And it comes to 18 million infections. In fact, the epidemic in the country is estimated at more than 250 million people in two weeks. And it soon eclipsed – 660 million cases worldwide in a few weeks. So this is an unprecedented outbreak.

Unprecedented outbreak. What does this mean for the rest of the world?

That one of the largest, largest populations in the world has more infections. Therefore, we should be looking for the options that could result from all these infections, as well as the current options, which in China may be slightly different from what we have seen in the past. These are the main concerns.

How clearly do Chinese officials understand what they are against? In other words, are they giving us real numbers that doctors trust? Are we getting a clear picture from officials in China?

Right now, of course, we don’t have a clear picture. Due to the lack of COVID, they had a pretty good case reporting system, including asymptomatic cases. However, since this policy ended on December 1st, we have not seen a new system replacing the old one since. So all these estimates are based on anecdotal estimates. So it’s not from the official records.

What about this new CDC rule? How effective will it be? You know, historically, travel restrictions have been of limited value, as I understand it, when it comes to containing the spread of COVID. How much of this is some sort of optics and not a real meaningful attempt to prevent a resurgence of COVID here in the US?

Well, you’re right. Any of these travel restrictions may not be an effective way to reduce the importation of new cases. What it does is slow down the import of new cases, perhaps at the same time it can help give the CDC some time to monitor options. So it’s really borrowed time, not a border wall in terms of infection.

I understand that the CDC is considering sampling sewage from international aircraft to track options that are emerging. Is it efficient?

It would be. I think any screening and focused surveillance will help the US understand what options are available and how serious the infection can be.

The fact that China is now saying, “Well, look, this is some kind of global policy on the part of the United States” and threatening some kind of retaliation… Does this mean that they are not taking this situation as seriously as they should, or how? are you reading this?

Well, we have seen that CDC China has surveillance systems and they have the ability to do genetic discovery of new variants. So I hope they do. But the question is how timely they should provide data to WHO and the professional community. So, I hope the communication is going well. But I think, you know, any public health professional will understand the importance of surveillance and communication around the world.

Doctor, how concerned are you that we might see a similar spread here in the US following what is happening in China right now?

For now, I’m not really worried before we see any new options because China has lower immunity compared to the rest of the world due to its zero COVID policy and low vaccination rates, especially among the elderly. So I think what we’re seeing in China, this tsunami of cases, is a reflection of the low immunity there. But I think that vigilance should only be to look out for options.

If you’re planning a trip to China, should you put those plans aside for now?

I would be very careful. But I know people who have been vaccinated in the US and being in China for the last couple of months until the whole family is infected that this is not the case. So I’m confident in the immunity that we got in the US, but I’ll still be wary of the possibility of new options coming up.

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