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The “zero Covid” policy, a strategy out of breath in the face of new variants?

In Canton, a large Chinese metropolis in southern China, hundreds of flights have been canceled and a screening of six million inhabitants has been launched after the discovery… of a single suspected case of Covid-19. In Shanghai, the “zero Covid” strategy redeployed for a month is causing the exasperation of residents locked up, sometimes by force, in their homes.

See also: China: in Shanghai, the confined population is at the end of its tether

If this strategy makes it possible to significantly stop the spread of the virus, is it the most effective in the face of a pandemic which has lasted for more than two years and has generated a fifth variant?

Supporting results

The “zero Covid” strategy is by far the most restrictive. As soon as the first cases appear, it involves first imposing very strict confinement to prevent the appearance of new cases. Several levers can then be activated such as the closing of borders, the tracing of all movements or even the application of the ” test, trace, isolate (TTI).

At the start of the pandemic, a majority of Pacific countries had chosen to follow China and apply it like New Zealand, Australia, Singapore or Taiwan. The results were also convincing in comparison with other States which had, on the contrary, opted for a policy of “free circulation” of the virus.

Since the start of the pandemic, it has been observed that weekly death rates have been practically nil for Australia and New Zealand while Norway had a rate of more than 6 per million inhabitants on January 22, 2021 and 94 for Sweden!

With the appearance of the Omicron variant, known for its much higher contagiousness than the previous variants, from the fall of 2021, the curves have however started to climb for all four countries.

The zero covid strategy proved to be especially effective during the first variants, much less contagious than the Omicron variant which is currently circulating », Estimates Yannick Simonin, lecturer in virology at the University of Montpellier. ” With highly contagious variants, it is much more difficult to apply this strategy because it is much more difficult to prevent the spread of the virus with such a high rate of contagiousness. “, reasons the scientist.

Case Explosion

Taiwan is one of those countries that recently chose to abandon its zero Covid policy. Since Thursday April 28, the archipelago has recorded more than 10,000 new infections per day after having managed to maintain a low rate of contamination since the start of the pandemic.

Letting viral circulation run had far too great a hospital impact. But the “zero covid” strategy is very complicated to hold in the long term, in particular because of its intransigence. Yannick Simonin, virologist

However, the country’s authorities are not alarmist about the situation. 99.7% of the 51,504 cases recorded since January 1 show no or few symptoms, said the Taiwanese Ministry of Health.

From Scandinavian “free movement” to “zero Covid”, which strategy would then seem the most conclusive in the long term? ” Neither of the two strategies has proven to be completely effective if we refer to the medium or long term, notes Yannick Simonin. Letting viral circulation run had far too great a hospital impact. The countries concerned have gone back. The zero covid strategy is very complicated to maintain in the long term, in particular because of its intransigence and the circulation of increasingly contagious variants. »

Padlocks on the doors

In Shanghai, a city reconfigured for a month, the population is exhausted. On social media, videos of residents banging on their pots and pans at their windows shouting want “provisions” have gone viral. Stéphane Lagarde, journalist at RFI, talks about ” cookware revolution ” for ” ask for food after 28 days of confinement. »

The buildings sometimes sealed, the doors padlocked, the forced quarantine induced by the “zero covid” policy creates a social discontent rarely seen in China. The authorities, however, cite the low rate of vaccination of the elderly as one of the arguments preventing any backtracking.

Getting out of “zero covid” overnight with a weakly immunized population and less effective vaccination of fragile populations would necessarily lead to a sharp increase in the number of cases and associated mortality, confirms the virologist. Moreover, the vaccines used in China are not the same as in Europe. They don’t work with messenger RNA and are probably less effective. »

Until now, the much better health record than Western countries has also allowed China to legitimize its zero Covid policy. According to official figures, the country has recorded only 5,000 deaths, while for example, France alone has 150,000.

The contagiousness of Omicron could however come to upset this assessment. The Asian giant is currently battling its worst outbreak since the spring of 2020. In the city of Shanghai alone, the Ministry of Health has announced more than 15,000 new positive cases in the past 24 hours.

For Yannick Simonin, “ we come to the end of this system “. ” The Chinese level of tolerance was higher than in other regions of the world but we have the impression that we are reaching the end of the capacity of the inhabitants to support these restrictions for which we do not see a short-term solution. If China is the last bastion of this strategy, I don’t think it will be for very long. »

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