You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

COVID: China Spread an 'Experiment the Likes of Which None of Us Have Seen'

Newsweek 1/27/2023 Aristos Georgiou

China has embarked on "an experiment" the likes of which the world has not seen since reversing its zero-COVID policy—and one that could have grave consequences—a health care expert has told Newsweek.

Ron Gutman, a Stanford University adjunct professor, health care entrepreneur and co-founder of Intrivo—a U.S. firm that developed the On/Go rapid COVID test—said China's secrecy regarding the sharing of health data poses a danger to the world.

He is calling for the development of a more robust global pandemic prediction and surveillance system that would be able to identify dangerous new pathogens or virus variants earlier, before they can cause widespread outbreaks.

"A lack of accurate and detailed information-sharing from China, coupled with a still fairly limited systemic monitoring of pathogens from the rest of the world—at least not as synced up between global players in both industry and government—leads to a perpetual risk of a wider outbreak of infections," Gutman told Newsweek.

After swiftly abandoning its strict zero-COVID policy in December, China has experienced a huge wave of infections. Last week, a senior health official said 80 percent of people in the country—equivalent to around 1.2 billion people—had been infected in this wave, although some Western analysts have expressed skepticism about this figure. (Others have said it is plausible, given our knowledge of the highly infectious Omicron variant.)

A true picture of what is really going on in the country is difficult to obtain, with experts wary of Chinese government data in general. The World Health Organization (WHO) has previously urged China to share more information about the disease's spread in the country, warning that it has underrepresented the true impact of the virus, particularly when it comes to deaths.

Before the government announced earlier this month that there had been 60,000 COVID deaths since early December, it acknowledged only 37 fatalities over the course of the pandemic. Western experts, on the other hand, have suggested that hundreds of thousands, or more than a million, have likely died from COVID in the country.

The most recent data released by Chinese health authorities suggests that the latest wave has already peaked. Officials downplayed concerns that the movement of millions of people over the Lunar New Year period could spread the virus and sow the seeds for another wave, arguing that there are now high levels of immunity.

But James Trauer, the head of the epidemiological modeling unit at Australia's Monash University, told The Guardian that Chinese authorities should not assume there will be no further waves of infection in the coming weeks and months just because the disease has spread widely over the winter.

While modeling by U.K. health analytics group Airfinity has suggested new cases in China are currently peaking at more than 4.5 million per day, its analysis indicates that social mixing over the Lunar New Year period has spread the virus further. The current wave is now forecast to last into March at least, increasing pressure on hospitals and likely leading to tens of thousands more deaths, Airfinity said.

Epidemiologist Jodie McVernon of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, Australia, told The Guardian that even if the current wave is subsiding, China is likely to face a cycle of infection spikes over the next year. "In having these really big, massive waves, there's a lot of exposures all at once, and then there's a lot of waning all at once," she said.

Some experts have downplayed concerns that the current wave in China could lead to the emergence of dangerous new variants, given that the country is lagging behind the rest of the world as a result of its zero-COVID policy. The known variants currently circulating in the country would likely not be fit enough to spread elsewhere because of preexisting immunity, some researchers have said.

But this situation could change quickly with so many people in China having gained some form of immunity from natural infection, potentially pushing the virus to evolve.

In light of this, Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, told Politico: "We cannot be complacent. We know that widespread transmission in large populations with less-than-optimal vaccination coverage anywhere are risk factors for the emergence of new variants of concern."

Kluge reiterated the organization's call for "vigilance, testing and sequencing of the virus" and, importantly, transparent data sharing, which he said applies to all countries.

Many countries are winding down variant surveillance efforts, which could increase the risk that a variant emerging from China could spread without being detected for some time, Verity Hill at the Yale School of Public Health told Nature.

Gutman said: "What is clear is that after three years of the world's toughest fight against COVID, and then its sudden reversal in the face of unacceptable economic costs and the rising social blank paper [protest] movement, China is now embarking on an experiment the likes of which none of us have seen or can predict," Gutman said.

The country provides an ideal breeding ground for a disease like COVID to spread and evolve, given its aging population and densely inhabited urban centers, according to Gutman.

He said that "1.4 billion people, living often in close quarters in one of China's 10 megacities above 10 million people, with vaccination rates obscured...are suffering through a COVID winter that eclipses anything seen worldwide."

Gutman continued: "With its lack of transparency and minimal cooperation with the international scientific community, when—not if—[the disease evolves], will the rest of the world be given notice? The answer seems unlikely. In trying to obscure the disease, it creates new risks for all of us. As we have seen, disease does not, of course, respect borders."

Need for Global Pandemic Surveillance System

Despite the dire consequences of the COVID pandemic, Gutman said that in some ways the world got off lightly this time around, although lessons need to be learned.

"Another pandemic, a variant or a new pathogen, will inevitably happen in the foreseeable future. Next time, it could be a much more lethal virus or even a mutation of an existing virus," he said. "Mutations pick up quickly—the COVID-19 virus, for example, makes 10 billion copies of its DNA with every infection.

"The vast majority of the time, these mutations of a disease will be benign and mild, and so the impact won't be too bad. But it only takes one potent variant—like the ones we saw in 2020 and 2021—to result in huge human and economic costs," he said.

Currently, there is a real lack of sustained health surveillance and communication on infection variants, causing concern that dangerous new variants could emerge and spread under the radar before we are able to control them, Gutman said.

"I would argue that we're absolutely not prepared for the next pandemic," he said. "The global system for monitoring and testing simply isn't there yet."

Despite this, Gutman said we have all the capabilities—technological, scientific and logistic—to be picking up new variants, as well as pathogens, much earlier, enabling us to intervene in time to mitigate the spread of infections.

"There are significant changes that can be easily implemented rapidly and cost-effectively for effective pandemic preparedness. Without this kind of infrastructure, we are playing Russian roulette with the lives of millions of people," he said.

Gutman said governments, world health organizations, biotech companies, universities and population health managers must not collectively "cool down" infectious disease prediction, detection and prevention efforts amid "pandemic fatigue."

Instead, these institutions should be working together to develop and implement better global pandemic-surveillance systems, leveraging data science and technology to analyze genomic, biological, ecological and public health data patterns using information collected from multiple sources around the world. The goal is to identify the emergence of a potentially dangerous outbreak in its early stages at the local, regional and national levels.

People visit a traditional Spring Festival flower market in Guangzhou, China, on January 20, 2023, ahead of Lunar New Year celebrations. STR/AFP via Getty Images © STR/AFP via Getty Images People visit a traditional Spring Festival flower market in Guangzhou, China, on January 20, 2023, ahead of Lunar New Year celebrations. STR/AFP via Getty Images

This system would have several facets to it. One aspect would be to better utilize the expertise of academic institutions that are already investigating viruses on an ongoing basis.

"Many of these universities are doing the work. We just need to connect this data together," Gutman said. "And we need to make sure that there's an alerting system on the same platform that brings the data very quickly into a central repository that processes them and figures out 'Is this something benign?'"

Identifying the early signals of a potentially dangerous emerging variant or pathogen is key. And when it comes to known pathogens, implementing better testing on a regular basis to collect more data is an important step.

"It's important to test and track and collect more data on existing, new and emerging variants of existing pathogens like COVID-19—that can potentially be much more aggressive than the ones we're familiar with—as well as put the right surveillance system in place to identify entirely new pathogens," Gutman said.

As for new, unknown pathogens, a variety of techniques can be combined to help spot them when they have just started to spread. For example, hospitals can send alerts regarding unusual new activity or scientists can track other indicators, such as sewage water in major cities.

"We can get early signals for an emerging new pathogen and deal with it early to nip it at the bud," Gutman said.

With an improved global pathogen surveillance system in place, the impact of any given outbreak could be mitigated to a significant degree because interventions could be launched at an earlier stage, Gutman said. But it is unlikely that it will be possible to prevent future pandemics entirely.

"You can take down 95 to 98 percent of the impact and that's huge, right?" he said.

Related Articles

Start your unlimited Newsweek trial

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon