The World Health Organization has said it is “very concerned” about a spike in severe Covid-19 cases in China and called on Beijing to step up its vaccination programme, especially among vulnerable groups.
Many cities in China are grappling with the rapid spread of coronavirus following the lifting of most Covid-19 restrictions after China aggressively pursued a zero-Covid policy for more than two years.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, who was speaking at the organisation’s end-of-year press conference on Wednesday, said it wanted more data to be made available on disease severity, hospital admissions and occupancy rates at intensive care units.
Critics have said the Geneva-based body has been too soft on China and that Beijing did not initially act fast enough to warn about coronavirus, which emerged from the central city of Wuhan in late 2019. The WHO had previously chastised China for a lack of transparency on data relating to the outbreak, with Tedros on Wednesday reiterating a call for the raw data on the virus’ origins to be made available.
China is struggling to cope with an “exit wave” of infections sparked by the lifting of restrictions.
“What’s being reported is relatively low numbers of cases in hospitals and ICUs,” said Mike Ryan, head of the WHO’s emergencies programme. “But, anecdotally, there are reports that those ICUs are filling up.”
“They’re behind the curve,” added Ryan, suggesting the discrepancy in numbers may be down to a lag in reporting, as has been seen with other countries that have experienced massive surges in caseloads.
Ryan said Beijing “lags behind” in its vaccination rates, especially for elderly age groups, who are most at risk of severe disease but who have remained stubbornly out of reach of health authorities in the past few months. China’s rates of uptake for booster shots are also relatively low.
However, he said China had made significant progress in building up its inoculation programme despite the protection it affords being “not adequate” for a country its size.
“The question remains whether or not enough vaccination can be done in the coming week, two weeks, that will actually blunt the impact of the Omicron wave,” he added.
Ryan also said the WHO “would encourage” China to import foreign mRNA vaccines such as the shots made by Moderna and BioNTech, which have been shown in studies to be more effective against Covid-19.
China has so far not approved them for domestic use, though it has greenlighted their use for foreign residents.