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Could China’s Covid chaos send world straight back to square one?

 

China‘s unrelenting Covid outbreak could spawn a doomsday variant which has the potential to send the world back to square one in its fight against the virus, experts warned today.

Cases have doubled within a fortnight across the country, where the pandemic began almost three years ago. A record 40,000 people are now testing positive every day, with millions subject to restrictions as Beijing sticks to its economically-crippling ‘zero Covid’ strategy.

Major anti-Government protests have erupted in cities over a fresh batch of virus-containing rules that has seen some confined to their homes for more than three months. It saw police arrest a BBC journalist, who said forces beat and kicked him while reporting on the unprecedented demonstrations.

Leading experts called China the ‘ideal’ breeding ground for risky variants because of how it has been sheltered from previous waves and has a low vaccine uptake. High infection rates are a ‘cauldron of virus evolution’ which could result in a more lethal and immune-evading variant, they said. 

China is experiencing an unprecedented wave of Covid which has sparked tough lockdowns, testing regimes and mask mandates China is experiencing an unprecedented wave of Covid which has sparked tough lockdowns, testing regimes and mask mandates

China is experiencing an unprecedented wave of Covid which has sparked tough lockdowns, testing regimes and mask mandates

Police in Shanghai arrest an activist after clashes with demonstrators which also saw a BBC cameraman detained and beaten Police in Shanghai arrest an activist after clashes with demonstrators which also saw a BBC cameraman detained and beaten

Police in Shanghai arrest an activist after clashes with demonstrators which also saw a BBC cameraman detained and beaten

A health worker in Shanghai takes a swab sample from a woman to test for Covid on November 28. Hundreds of people have taken to the streets in China's major cities in a rare outpouring of public anger against the state over its zero-Covid policy A health worker in Shanghai takes a swab sample from a woman to test for Covid on November 28. Hundreds of people have taken to the streets in China's major cities in a rare outpouring of public anger against the state over its zero-Covid policy

A health worker in Shanghai takes a swab sample from a woman to test for Covid on November 28. Hundreds of people have taken to the streets in China’s major cities in a rare outpouring of public anger against the state over its zero-Covid policy

How Covid revolt swept across China: Hundreds of brave protesters demand Communist leader steps down over draconian lockdowns in biggest uprising since Tiananmen Square, writes IAN BIRRELL

The protests expose the growing mood of frustration after almost three years of restrictions in the only major country in the world still fighting Covid using the outdated weapons of mass lockdowns and regular testing The protests expose the growing mood of frustration after almost three years of restrictions in the only major country in the world still fighting Covid using the outdated weapons of mass lockdowns and regular testing

The protests expose the growing mood of frustration after almost three years of restrictions in the only major country in the world still fighting Covid using the outdated weapons of mass lockdowns and regular testing

However, other top scientists warned that the spike — which shows no signs of having peaked yet — will not necessarily lead to a worrying, new strain.

China has imposed stringent pandemic rules for nearly three years, ever since the coronavirus was first spotted in Wuhan. 

It means the nation’s 1.4billion-plus residents have been plagued by aggressive restrictions while other nations who adopted hermit strategies have resorted to living with the virus, which poses a much milder threat now than when the pandemic began.

It has seen local authorities subject residents to strict lockdowns, mass testing campaigns and months-long quarantine even for tiny outbreaks, which has triggered food and medicine shortages.

China’s daily infections previously peaked at around 25,000 in April. 

Since then, it has been logging between 200 and 2,000 cases per day.

But the rate began to shoot upwards one month ago and this weekend hit 39,791 — nine in 10 of which were asymptomatic, according to data from the National Health Commission.

Confirmed cases jumped 66 per cent to 4,307 in Beijing, while most infections were logged in southwestern city Chongqing (8,861) and Guangzhou (7,721), in the south.

Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist based at the University of Reading, told MailOnline: ‘Every single Covid infection presents the virus with an opportunity to change its characteristics.

‘The idea that this only leads to decreased lethality is simply wrong; having effective population-wide immunity seems to have had a much more substantial protective effect, but compared to the vaccines used here it seems that China’s is less effective, which might be contributing to their problem. 

‘Large scale, mass infections, even if they don’t cause severe disease, are a cauldron of virus evolution which allow them to change and potentially become more lethal or less sensitive to existing immunity.’

While the figures are a fraction of the 970,000 people in the UK who are thought to be infected on any given day, vaccine uptake in China is lower and they have not had a recent booster rollout.

And the Chinese Covid vaccines — Sinovac and Sinopharm — are widely considered to be less effective than the mRNA vaccines used in most other nations. 

A woman gets a Covid test at a testing site in Shanghai on November 28 A woman gets a Covid test at a testing site in Shanghai on November 28

A woman gets a Covid test at a testing site in Shanghai on November 28

Epidemic-prevention workers in protective suits line leave a testing station in Beijing amid outbreak of Covid Epidemic-prevention workers in protective suits line leave a testing station in Beijing amid outbreak of Covid

Epidemic-prevention workers in protective suits line leave a testing station in Beijing amid outbreak of Covid

China's daily infections previously peaked at around 25,000 in April. Since then, it has been logging between 200 and 2,000 cases per day. But the rate began to shoot upwards one month ago and yesterday hit 39,791 — nine in 10 of which were asymptomatic, according to data from the National Health Commission China's daily infections previously peaked at around 25,000 in April. Since then, it has been logging between 200 and 2,000 cases per day. But the rate began to shoot upwards one month ago and yesterday hit 39,791 — nine in 10 of which were asymptomatic, according to data from the National Health Commission

China’s daily infections previously peaked at around 25,000 in April. Since then, it has been logging between 200 and 2,000 cases per day. But the rate began to shoot upwards one month ago and yesterday hit 39,791 — nine in 10 of which were asymptomatic, according to data from the National Health Commission

China's reported death rate remains tiny — with between zero and two virus fatalities reported per day since May China's reported death rate remains tiny — with between zero and two virus fatalities reported per day since May

China’s reported death rate remains tiny — with between zero and two virus fatalities reported per day since May

Despite strict Covid controls, China is currently logging just 27 cases per million people, compared to 5,731 in the UK Despite strict Covid controls, China is currently logging just 27 cases per million people, compared to 5,731 in the UK

Despite strict Covid controls, China is currently logging just 27 cases per million people, compared to 5,731 in the UK 

China logged zero Covid deaths per million people yesterday, compared to 0.9 per million in the US and 1.1 in the UK China logged zero Covid deaths per million people yesterday, compared to 0.9 per million in the US and 1.1 in the UK

China logged zero Covid deaths per million people yesterday, compared to 0.9 per million in the US and 1.1 in the UK

On top of this, while low rates of transmission has seen China log a small virus death rate compared to the rest of the world, it means people have limited built-up natural immunity. 

These factors encourage the virus to spread easier, with health bosses warning the virus is most likely to mutate when it is most prevalent.

UK Government scientists have previously warned that it is a ‘realistic possibility’ that a future variant, the next of which is expected to be called Pi, could kill up to one in three people — making it as deadly as MERS, which has a mortality rate of 35 per cent.

Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, told MailOnline: ‘China have got themselves into a terrible dilemma. 

‘China’s zero Covid policy has resulted in far fewer deaths than most other countries including the UK and US. But it has also fostered vaccine hesitancy — why get vaccinated if you have eliminated the virus? 

‘There is a particular concern about the elderly in China where vaccination coverage of third booster shots is relatively low. 

‘Overall, a combination of vaccine hesitancy, the use of less effective vaccines (certainly compared to mRNA spike vaccines) and relatively low waves of previous infection (due to the zero-Covid policy) means that the population does not have a wall of protective immunity. 

‘Not only does this run the risk of widespread infection resulting in high levels of severe disease and death, but it also provides an ideal environment for the breeding of new variants.’

Professor Francois Balloux, an infectious disease expert based at University College London, told MailOnline that China will see a ‘major Covid wave in the near future’. 

He said: ‘Given the low vaccination rate in the elderly and the fairly fragile state of Chinese healthcare capacity, a major surge in Covid could lead to considerable mortality and morbidity in China.’

However, he added: ‘I’m less concerned about such a surge leading to the emergence of new viral variants. 

‘The major variants we have seen (Alpha, Delta and Omicron) likely arose from long-term infections in immunocompromised patients. 

‘As such, a major surge in China is not expected to drastically increase the risk of emergence of new variants, at least not in the very short term.

‘I’m also not convinced that given the urgency of the humanitarian and epidemiological situation in China, the emergence of future variants is really what we should be obsessing about right now.’ 

A man hugs a woman as police officers ask people to leave an area in Shanghai on November 27 A man hugs a woman as police officers ask people to leave an area in Shanghai on November 27

A man hugs a woman as police officers ask people to leave an area in Shanghai on November 27

Demonstrators in Beijing hold up blank pieces of paper in an apparent statement on state censorship and freedom of speech on November 27 Demonstrators in Beijing hold up blank pieces of paper in an apparent statement on state censorship and freedom of speech on November 27

Demonstrators in Beijing hold up blank pieces of paper in an apparent statement on state censorship and freedom of speech on November 27

People sing slogans while gathering on a street in Shanghai amid an outpouring of anger against Xi Jinping's authoritarian rule on November 27 People sing slogans while gathering on a street in Shanghai amid an outpouring of anger against Xi Jinping's authoritarian rule on November 27

People sing slogans while gathering on a street in Shanghai amid an outpouring of anger against Xi Jinping’s authoritarian rule on November 27

Mr Lawrence was beaten and kicked by the police officers and held in custody for 'several hours' before being released, as Chinese officials sought to crack down on the media and protesters in the city Mr Lawrence was beaten and kicked by the police officers and held in custody for 'several hours' before being released, as Chinese officials sought to crack down on the media and protesters in the city This is the moment that Chinese police suddenly dragged Mr Lawrence away as a wave of civil unrest sweeps the nation This is the moment that Chinese police suddenly dragged Mr Lawrence away as a wave of civil unrest sweeps the nation

Footage also shows the journalist helpless on the ground with three aggressive officers in high-vis jackets standing over him and pulling his arms behind his back

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Xi Jinping has not responded to the protests, but few expect him to back down and have warned that a crackdown is 'inevitable' Xi Jinping has not responded to the protests, but few expect him to back down and have warned that a crackdown is 'inevitable'

Xi Jinping has not responded to the protests, but few expect him to back down and have warned that a crackdown is ‘inevitable’

Scientists have previously said it is equally realistic that Covid will mutate to become less lethal over time, as has happened with Omicron and its variants. 

And the currently used Covid vaccines are expected work against future variants unless there is an extra-potent mutation that renders jabs much less effective at blocking serious disease — which many experts say is extremely unlikely.

The country’s ‘difficult situation’ means easing Covid curbs will see infections and severe disease ‘surge’ — although rates of serious illness will fall to levels seen in Western nations over time, he said.

‘But if they continue with their zero-Covid strategy, even more people will lose their protection [from vaccination] before being exposed to the virus and so severe disease and deaths will be even greater in the long term,’ he said.

Professor Hunter added: ‘If I was responsible in China, I would kick start a new vaccination campaign urgently to give everyone some more protection before then relaxing restrictions, especially for older people — pretty much what most Western nations have done. 

‘The problem is vaccine fatigue. Will the Chinese be able to vaccinated as many people who would benefit from vaccine before the infection spreads widely?’

It comes as China is facing its largest anti-Government demonstrations since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, with protests erupting in at least seven cities over the country’s strict Covid rules. 

Areas have brought in fresh restrictions to tackle outbreaks, including forbidding people from leaving their apartments. This is despite President Xi Jinping easing some national measures — such as quarantine and tracing close contacts — a fortnight ago amid the rise in cases.

more videos

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Revealed: Britain has world’s SECOND biggest Covid outbreak currently – behind only Japan… so where else is in the worst 20? 

Despite measures such as local lockdowns, testing and months-long quarantine being deemed necessary across the country, China's current infection rate — relative to its population — doesn't even rank in the top 20 Despite measures such as local lockdowns, testing and months-long quarantine being deemed necessary across the country, China's current infection rate — relative to its population — doesn't even rank in the top 20

Despite measures such as local lockdowns, testing and months-long quarantine being deemed necessary across the country, China’s current infection rate — relative to its population — doesn’t even rank in the top 20

Footage circulated on social media showed crowds tearing down metal fences and barricades across China as they grappled with security officers who deployed their batons and tear gas in attempt to control the protesters. 

Video also appears to show police attacking anti-lockdown protesters who had been arrested and put on buses in Shanghai on the third day of unrest in the world’s most populous nation. 

The catalyst for the protests was an apartment fire last week in the western city of Urumqi that killed 10 people. Many speculated that Covid curbs in the city, parts of which had been under lockdown for 100 days, had hindered rescue and escape, which city officials denied.

The largest of the demonstrations has taken place in Shanghai — home to 26million residents — with many also boldly demanding that President Xi resign. 

Shocking footage from protests in Shanghai shows Edward Lawrence, a camera operator for the BBC’s China Bureau, being dragged away by officers as he desperately screams ‘Call the consulate now’ to a friend.

Mr Lawrence was beaten and kicked by the police officers and held in custody for ‘several hours’ before being released. 

The British journalist said that at least one local was arrested after they tried to stop the police from beating him during his arrest, while a Michael Peuker, a China correspondent for a Swiss radio station, was also arrested.

Mr Lawrence has been providing updates of the extraordinarily rare protests across China. Most incredibly, some protesters have been heard shouting ‘Down with the party!’ and ‘Down with Xi Jinping!’, as well as ‘No to nucleic acid tests, we want food!’.

The Shanghai police officers tried to dismiss the arrest as being for Mr Lawrence’s ‘own good’, claiming that he was arrested ‘in case he caught Covid from the crowd’. The BBC dismissed the farfetched explanation as implausible.

The UK’s Business Secretary Grant Shapps today denounced the police’s actions ‘unacceptable’ and ‘concerning’. He told LBC radio: ‘Whatever else happens, freedom of the press should be sacrosanct.’

Demonstrations against President Xi’s virus crackdowns have also swept Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Nanjing.

Alfred Wu Muluan, a Chinese politics expert at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said: ‘People have now reached a boiling point because there has been no clear path to end the zero-Covid policy.’