Surge of COVID infections in China worth watching but not panicking over, epidemiologist says

Travelers coming to the U.S. from China must now test negative for the virus before boarding.

By Michael MarksJanuary 4, 2023 11:45 am, ,

An unprecedented surge of COVID-19 infections in China has led to a reversal of the country’s “zero-COVID” policy, and some other nations are now requiring travelers from China to test negative for COVID before boarding a plane.

The news out of China bears watching, but shouldn’t be a source of major concern for the U.S., according to Dr. Jennifer Bouey. Bouey is an epidemiologist, chair of the Global Health department at Georgetown University, and Tang Chair for China Policy at the Rand Corporation. She spoke with Texas Standard about the significance of China’s latest COVID trends. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit more about what officials are actually seeing in China and how they compare to previous points in the pandemic. How concerned should folks be? 

Jennifer Bouey: Ever since Dec. 1, when China’s vice premier basically reversed its zero-COVID policy, we have seen a tsunami of infections in China. One of the top epidemiologists in Beijing has just recently estimated that 80% of the population in Beijing has been infected in the last few weeks. And that comes up to 18 million infections. In fact, the country’s epidemic is estimated to be more than 250 million in the two weeks. And that was soon eclipsed – 660 million cases of the whole world in a few weeks. So it is an unprecedented outbreak.

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

That there’s more infections in one of the largest, the largest population in the world. So we should look for the variants that may come out from all these infections and also the current variants that in China can be a little bit different than what we have seen in the past. Those are the major concerns.

How clear are Chinese officials being about what it is that they are up against? In other words, are they giving us real numbers that doctors have confidence in? Are we getting a clear picture from officials in China? 

We certainly don’t have the clear picture now. Because of the zero-COVID, they used to have a pretty good case reporting system, including the asymptomatic cases. However, since that policy stopped on Dec. 1, since then, we haven’t seen a new system replacing the old one. So all these estimates are based on anecdotal estimates. So it’s not from the official records.

Well, what about this new CDC rule? How effective will that be? You know, travel restrictions historically have shown to be of limited value, is my understanding, when it comes to curbing the spread of COVID. How much of this is sort of optics versus a real a meaningful attempt at trying to keep COVID from resurging here in the U.S.? 

Well, you’re right. Any of these travel restriction cannot be an effective way to reduce any imports of new cases. What it does is to slow down the import of the new cases, maybe at the same time can help give some time for CDC to monitor the variants. So it’s really a borrowed time rather than a border wall in terms of the infection.

I understand that the CDC is considering sampling wastewater taken from international aircraft to track emerging variants. Is that effective?

That would be. I think any screening surveillance and targeted surveillance will help the U.S. to get a sense of what are the variants and how severe the infection can be.

The fact that China is now saying, “well, look, this is kind of global politics on the U.S. part” and threatening some kind of retaliation… Does that mean that they’re not taking this situation as seriously as they should, or how do you read that? 

Well, we have seen that the China CDC, they do have surveillance systems and they have the capacity to do the genetic detection of the new variants. So I hope they are doing that. But the question is how on time they are to give the data to WHO and to professional society. So on that I hope the communication is doing well. But I think, you know, any public health professionals will understand the importance of surveillance and the communication globally.

Doctor, how concerned are you that we might see a similar kind of spread here in the U.S. on the heels of what’s happening in China right now? 

I’m not terribly concerned for now before we see any new variants, because China has a lower immunity compared to the rest of the world because of its zero-COVID policy and because of its low vaccination, especially the boosters among the elders. So I think what we see in China, this tsunami of cases, is a reflection after low immunity over there. But I do think that vigilance should be there just to look out for the variants.

If you’re planning on traveling to China, should you scrap those plans for now?

I would be very careful. But I do know people who have been vaccinated in the U.S. and, being in China in the last couple of months, while the whole family is infected, that they’re not. So I’m confident of the immunity we got in the U.S., but I would still be careful because of the possibility of new variants.

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