Dr Zeng Guang, who was until recently chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said that Beijing would introduce the strategy pivot “in the near future”.
Through strict border controls and total lockdowns to eliminate outbreaks, Beijing has until now minimised case numbers and deaths by pursuing a divergent approach to most other parts of the world.
The policy has had major economic repercussions for China and other countries. Before the pandemic, about 155 million Chinese travelled abroad each year, making them a hugely valuable source market.
While timing was uncertain, a move to living with the virus has been seen as inevitable eventually, especially given reported weariness about snap lockdowns.
In a post on the Chinese social media platform Weibo on Monday, Dr Zeng said China’s approach “will not remain for ever”, adding that societies had ultimately “to coexist with the virus”.
“In the near future at an appropriate timing, China will surely present its version of the road map for coexisting with the virus,” he said, according to a translation of his comments also posted on social media.
China’s hand in adopting a new policy may be forced by a recent spike in cases in Hong Kong caused by the Omicron variant.
This is putting the special administrative region’s health services under heavy strain and making it difficult to enforce zero-Covid measures such as ensuring that close contacts of positive cases quarantine.
In the most recent full week of figures, China as a whole, including Hong Kong, recorded just over 100,000 Covid-19 cases — almost a third of the country’s total for the whole pandemic.
Prof John Oxford, emeritus professor of virology at Queen Mary University of London and co-author of the textbook Human Virology, said China’s zero-Covid strategy “has been admirable”, but “in the end” the country was going to have to live with the virus.
“I suspect they’re confident they’ve got enough people vaccinated to move slowly out of the zero-Covid [strategy],” he told The National.
“It doesn’t surprise me they’ve gone that way.”
While it has come at the price of largely isolating China from the rest of the world, Beijing’s zero-Covid policy has kept total infections to 301,154 and deaths to 6,148, according to official figures, and the results have been described as remarkable for a country of 1.4 billion.
Mainland China, with its locally developed jabs and large vaccine-manufacturing capacity, has fully vaccinated 88 per cent of its population, with 91 per cent having had at least one jab. Amid concerns that some Chinese vaccines such as Sinopharm and Sinovac have low efficacy, the country has rolled out additional shots to 40 per cent of the population.
In Hong Kong, 69 per cent of people are fully jabbed, although rates are low among older people, with fewer than one in three over-80s having had a full course of vaccination. In China’s other special administrative region, Macau, 77 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Aside from vaccination, the lower number of Covid-19 infections in China means that fewer people have developed “natural immunity”.
Dr Zeng, who has been described as one of the masterminds behind China’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, described this as a “soft spot” for the country.
In a nation where public praise from senior officials for the West’s Covid-19 strategy is rare, Dr Zeng is reported to have said that Western nations have shown “commendable courage” in learning to live with the coronavirus.
Tough restrictions and the need for arriving travellers to quarantine remain in place in Hong Kong, as in mainland China, and official policy has yet to change, although this is thought likely.
“I think it was always inevitable that they would have to change policy,” said Prof David Taylor, emeritus professor of pharmaceutical and public health at University College London.
“It only makes sense to have rigid [lockdowns] if you can eliminate something. Clearly they cannot eliminate it. I can understand why they did it initially because we weren’t sure what we’re dealing with. But I think they’ve been slow to change.”