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China, one of the world’s few ‘COVID-zero’ holdouts, sets a loose timeline for easing virus measures

October 4, 2021, 10:09 AM UTC

On Sunday, Zhong Nanshan, one of China’s top epidemiologists and government advisers, suggested that the country may begin to loosen its “COVID-zero” restrictions by the end of the year and learn to live with the virus—a potential change in tack for a country that has not budged from its mission to eliminate every single case of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

China’s COVID-zero measures, which prioritize snuffing out even one COVID-19 case no matter the cost, have remained largely the same since the country successfully contained the world’s first outbreak of infections in Wuhan in the spring of 2020. For 18 months, China’s borders have been all but locked, with most foreigners banned from entering the country and residents able to enter only after serving 14- to 21-day mandatory quarantines. When the virus does manage to seep into the country, China’s government deploys neighborhood- or citywide lockdowns, mass testing, and intensive contact-tracing measures to find infections and halt outbreaks.

“Why are we still employing strict measures to prevent and control the disease?” Zhong asked in an interview with Southern Weekly, a newspaper based in Guangzhou. “Our vaccination rate has not reached 80%–85% yet.”

Zhong’s comments are the first indication that China is tying its reopening plans to a vaccination goal. Still, Zhong said China will not automatically reopen its borders upon reaching the 80%–85% vaccination threshold, since case rates in other countries will also weigh on its plans.

China may be only months—if not weeks—away from Zhong’s target. As of Monday, China has fully vaccinated 74.8% of its population, while 82.5% of Chinese citizens have received at least one vaccine dose. Zhong did not say how quickly China may reopen once reaching the 80%–85% vaccination coverage, but he estimated that at China’s current pace, over 80% of the population would be fully vaccinated by the end of this year.

China’s COVID-zero playbook for battling the virus has proved successful against the Delta variant of COVID-19. Measures imposed against outbreaks in places like the eastern Fujian province or southern Guangzhou city have contained the virus, even as Delta has stymied virus response systems in other countries with zero tolerance for infections, like Vietnam and Australia.

But China’s continued reliance on COVID-zero protocols despite its high vaccination rate has raised questions about whether the measures will be a fixture of Chinese life for the long term.

The city of Guangzhou recently built a $260 million, 5,000-room central quarantine facility to house incoming travelers, stoking fears among experts that China may construct such facilities across the country to maintain border restrictions and long quarantines for years to come. China’s government also recently announced that it will not welcome foreign spectators for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, which are scheduled to start in February of next year.  

But Zhong acknowledged that China’s strict COVID rules impose a “burden” on the government and that the costs of maintaining the measures may eventually outweigh the health benefits.

“China cannot carry on like this because COVID-19 is a global disease that requires China and the rest of the world to work together and beat it,” he said.

The economic costs of China’s COVID-19 policies continue to mount with each new outbreak.

In August, analysts at Goldman Sachs, Nomura, and other banks downgraded China’s GDP forecasts because of Delta-driven waves in places such as Guangzhou and elsewhere. That month, China’s retail sales also grew by 2.5% compared with July, marking the slowest growth rate in over a year due in part to COVID-19 outbreaks and government-imposed lockdowns.

Zhong said that trying to keep the disease out of China forever may become futile, especially as a high nationwide vaccination rate renders the disease less dangerous.

Zhong’s comments suggest that China’s government may be warming to the idea of learning to live with COVID, marking another shift in stance. In August, Chinese social media users launched a campaign against another top Chinese infectious disease expert, Zhang Wenhong, for his comments that China must learn to coexist with the virus, rather than try to eradicate it. Social media users perceived Zhang’s comments as undermining Beijing’s COVID-zero policies, and Shanghai’s Fudan University investigated—but later cleared—Zhang of plagiarism allegations amid the online backlash. Zhang works as director of infectious diseases at Huashan Hospital, which is affiliated with Fudan University.

“If the pandemic continues for a long time, even the strictest prevention and control methods will not work forever,” Zhong said. “[But] when the death rate becomes very low, having COVID-19 could be part of the norm.”

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