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Massive COVID-19 surge in China; Sri Lanka expert calls for strengthened surveillance

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ECONOMYNEXT – A massive surge in COVID-19 cases in China after Beijing removed restrictions has led to uncertainty about the worldwide threat level and potential disruptions to global supply chains, but experts are cautiously optimistic that a sequel to 2020 is unlikely unless a new dangerous variant emerges, a possibility that they also hesitate to rule out.

“Many countries have many variants of COVID, so unless a very different variant emerges, we will not get another pandemic,” Prof Neelika Malavige of the University of Sri Jayawardenapura, Sri Lanka, said.

“But there is always a possibility of a completely different variant emerging. This is why we need to strengthen our surveillance,” she said.

International media reported that China is now facing what is likely the world’s largest surge in cases, with public health officials warning that possibly 800 million people could be infected with the virus over the next few months. NPR reported that several models predict that half a million people could die, if not more.

Malavige, Professor in Microbiology at the Department of Immunology and Molecular Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, told EconomyNext Wednesday December 21 morning that Sri Lanka needs to strengthen its gene sequencing efforts.

“We last sequenced three weeks ago. There are no samples for sequencing at present. This is the issue, which is really not an issue. We have an influenza problem but COVID cases are low at least for now,” she said.

Citing data from GISAID, the global science initiative that reports on sequencing, the expert said that China has the same variant that Sri Lanka has: Omicron and its offshoots. International reports attribute China’s ongoing surge to a few highly transmissible subvariants of omicron.

“The issue is that while the rest of the world is reporting low transmission, there is very high transmission in China,” said Malavige.

“It’s the perfect environment for the emergence of new variants,” she said.

However, a variant that causes havoc in one country may not cause as much damage in another country, the professor said, citing the XBB variant as an example.

“We have many XBB variant series in Sri Lanka, but they’re not causing much of an issue,” she said.

Sri Lanka, currently going through its worst currency crisis, is in the midst of a multipronged effort to revive its tourism sector, which was ravaged by the pandemic worsening the country’s forex shortage. Tourism industry representatives say the island nation is not in a position to shut its doors to tourists from anywhere.

Prof Malavige does not believe tourists coming in from China poses a significant danger. In fact, she said, visiting Chinese nationals are likely to be exposed to new variants here.

“They will get different COVID variants from us. You name it, we have it.”

The Guardian reported quoting World Health Organisation (WHO)-affiliated experts that allowing the virus to spread domestically in China could also give it the chance to mutate, potentially creating a dangerous new variant.

China’s zero-Covid approach kept infections and deaths comparatively low among the population of 1.4 billion, but a relaxation in rules has changed the global picture, these experts have said.

“The question is whether you can call it post-pandemic when such a significant part of the world is actually just entering its second wave,” the Guardian quoted Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans as saying. Koopmans sits on a WHO committee tasked with advising on the status of the Covid emergency.

“It’s clear that we are in a very different phase [of the pandemic], but in my mind, that pending wave in China is a wild card.”

Koopmans and other WHO advisory committee members are due to make a recommendation on the global alert level in late January, the report said, but the final decision rests with WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in September said “the end is in sight” for the pandemic. (Colombo/Dec21/2022)


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