Chinese health official says Omicron Covid-19 variant as harmful as flu

The government has ended the strict 'zero-Covid' policy after rare protests

A person wearing a protective suit waits at a waiting hall of a railway station, after the government eased curbs on the coronavirus disease control, in Wuhan, China December 11, 2022. Reuters
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China’s strict approach to containing Covid-19 appeared to ease further on Sunday, after the country’s chief medical adviser said that the globally dominant Omicron strain is about as harmful as flu.

Speaking to state news agency Xinhua, Zhong Nanshan said the death rate from the Omicron variant is similar to flu. His comments align China with most countries, where Covid restrictions are now almost entirely lifted.

The death rate from Omicron is around 0.1 per cent and the infection rarely reaches the lungs, Mr Zhong said. Most people recover within seven to 10 days, he said, according to the news agency.

The remarks come after China abandoned its zero-Covid policy, which was kept in place to protect the elderly, after the government said vaccine uptake in older segments of the population was low.

The policy involved closing down entire districts of some of China’s most populated cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing, curbing economic activity for weeks and in some cases months on end, causing rising economic pain and public anger.

Urumqi, a city of over 3 million people in Xinjiang, emerged from a 100-day lockdown in late November.

The lockdown contributed to rare street protests in cities across the country last month, sparked by the deaths of 10 people trapped in a burning high-rise building. Protesters said lockdown measures slowed rescue efforts.

Mr Zhong said that China was also launching a new vaccination drive to protect segments of the population where uptake has been low and ensure booster shots have been administered.

There’s an “urgent need” to increase booster rates as travel during coming holidays will raise the risk of a large-scale spread, Mr Zhong was quoted as saying.

“It’s unlikely people will stay put for the 2023 Lunar New Year holiday so I advise those who will travel home to get booster shots so that even if they are infected, symptoms will be mild,” Mr Zhong said.

The Lunar New Year holiday runs from January 21 to January 27 but usually lasts about 40 days as people take time off before and after the official break. Hundreds of millions of Chinese migrate to their home provinces for family reunions.

In a Sunday commentary, the Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily said local governments have swiftly put into practice 10 new Covid measures announced by the National Health Commission last week, including a reduction of mass testing and loosening of quarantine rules.

Regions including Chongqing, and cities in Liaoning, Shandong and Guangdong have urged schools to resume offline teaching, the paper reported separately.

Updated: December 11, 2022, 12:23 PM