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China braces for new covid wave; XBB variant vaccines on the way

Chinese authorities are rushing to push out vaccines to fight an ongoing new wave of the coronavirus expected to peak in June and infect as many as 65 million people a week, as the new XBB variants of the virus evolves to overcome the immunity built up after China’s abrupt exit from its “zero covid” policy last year.

Zhong Nanshan, a top Chinese epidemiologist, said Monday that two new vaccines for the XBB omicron subvariants (including XBB. 1.9.1, XBB. 1.5, and XBB. 1.16) had received initial approval, according to state media reports. Zhong, speaking at biotech forum in Guangzhou, said three to four other vaccines were set to be approved soon, but he did not provide more details.

The new outbreak could be the largest wave of infections since China dismantled its strict zero-covid regime last winter, causing as much as 85 percent of the population to be infected at the time.

Why China dumped its ‘zero covid’ policy so suddenly — and disastrously

In the United States, the new variants brought an uptick in infections, but the end of the public health emergency was still declared on May 11, although experts have not ruled out new variants setting off another wave of infections in the coming years.

While officials in China say the new wave will be less severe, public health experts say that an aggressive vaccine booster program and a ready supply of antivirals at hospitals are needed to prevent another spike in deaths among the country’s large elderly population.

“The number of infections will be less. The severe cases will be certainly be less, and deaths will be less, but that could still be a large number,” said Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health. “Even when we think this is a milder wave, it could still be quite a substantial health impact on the community.”

The variants have caused a surge in cases since last month, with covid overtaking the flu as the most common infectious disease over the last two weeks of April, according to the Beijing Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health officials have reassured the public that reinfections have milder symptoms and promised that hospitals will not be overwhelmed as they were last winter. Some hospitals have advised residents to wear masks and for the elderly and immunocompromised to avoid crowded places.

Still, restrictions like those seen during the zero-covid era, when China attempted to prevent any infections, have not been revived and most residents appear to be continuing life as usual.

“I feel like the impact has not been that big,” said Olivia Zhang, 33, who works at an amusement park in Beijing and has seen friends and co-workers get reinfected. “But they will only be out for a short time before coming back to work. No one is scared of being around them.”

Tan Xiang, 32, who works at a state-owned firm in Shenzhen, said his company does not encourage its staff members to stay home if they are infected. Their wages will be reduced according to the time they take off.

“We are all going to work as usual. No one is regulating us. On the subway, in office buildings, and malls, a lot of people don’t wear face masks,” Tan said, adding that those around him who have been infected in this wave have not shown severe symptoms.

There have been complaints online that a university in Nanjing was forcing students testing positive to quarantine in dorms. Other students posted online that they quarantined themselves at school so as to not infect their family members at home.

Others expressed resignation. On the platform Xiaohongshu, or “Little Red Book,” one commentator wrote, “I dodged the pandemic for three years. I dodged a huge outbreak. In the end, I was caught in the second wave. I used to think I was one of those super immune humans destined to save human kind. Looks like I was wrong.”

Lyric Li in Seoul and Pei-Lin Wu and Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report.

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