Is China going to be able to deal with Omicron?

Yao Dawei/Xinhua via AP

The Omicron variant could have been called the Xi variant if the World Health Organization hadn’t decided to skip a couple letters of the Greek alphabet to avoid stigmatizing a common name. But with the Chinese Olympics coming up, it’s fair to ask how China is going to be able to deal with Omicron. Vox suggests China’s blunt force approach to dealing with outbreaks may finally meet its match thanks to Omicron.

With the Beijing Olympics a little more than a month away and the politically significant National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party to be held in the fall, the harsh localized lockdowns that have defined China’s response to the pandemic are likely to persist throughout 2022, maybe even longer.

China’s policy is basically the polar opposite of how the US has been trying to live with the virus. Any positive case is quarantined. Contact tracing, enabled through surveillance tech and artificial intelligence, can pinpoint a flare-up: Buildings, city blocks, or even whole neighborhoods are sealed when a case is reported. “It’s pretty brutal. It’s a blunt tool,” said Megan Greene, an economist with the Kroll Institute. Yet as a result of the policy, China has had many, many fewer deaths.

But zero Covid is going to be much more difficult to implement with a more transmissible variant, and the lessened effectiveness of Chinese vaccines against variants suggests that this policy will only be hardened. (To be fair, two doses of the mRNA vaccines aren’t doing great in preventing omicron infection, according to initial studies, although they still offer strong protection against severe illness.)

Allahpundit wrote about some of this last week. There is plenty of evidence that the Chinese vaccines, which weren’t very good in the first place, won’t protect people from Omicron. Here’s what the NY Times reported.

A new study looking at blood samples from people who received two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine made by the Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac suggested that the vaccine would be unable to prevent an infection of the new, highly infectious Omicron variant.

The research, which analyzed the blood of 25 people vaccinated with Sinovac, is the latest sign of the new challenge Omicron presents as it spreads across the world. The scientists from the University of Hong Kong found that, in laboratory experiments, none of the 25 samples produced sufficient antibodies to block the variant from invading cells. The researchers said it was not yet clear whether a third shot of Sinovac would improve the results.

Sinovac suggested that while two doses might not be enough to ward off Omicron, a third booster dose could do the trick. But Bloomberg News reported yesterday that a study of that question suggests even a booster isn’t enough:

Two doses and a booster of the Covid-19 vaccine made by China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd., one of the most widely used in the world, didn’t produce sufficient levels of neutralizing antibodies to protect against the omicron variant, a laboratory study found…

While much is still unknown about how Sinovac’s shot holds up to omicron — including how T cells, the immune system’s weapon against virus-infected cells, will respond — the initial results are a blow to those who have received CoronaVac. There have been more than 2.3 billion doses of the shot produced and shipped out, mostly in China and the developing world.

Giving someone an alternative booster shot was seen to be more effective but that won’t help people in China who don’t have access to other vaccines. All of that to say, China is potentially facing a tremendous number of breakthrough infections of a virus that is far more transmissible than the delta variant.

China’s usual response to infections is to shut down everything and mass test everyone. This week a relatively small outbreak led to a city of 13 million people being shut down.

On Tuesday, the central Chinese city of Xi’an recorded 52 new Covid-19 cases. By Wednesday, authorities had imposed strict lockdown measures on its estimated 13 million residents.

The sweeping restrictions, which prevent people from leaving their homes, come as the country braces for the Lunar New Year travel rush, followed by the 2022 Winter Olympics, due to begin in the capital Beijing on February 4…

Officials believe the cluster is linked to an inbound flight from Pakistan on December 4, where at least six passengers were found to have the Delta variant. So far, there have been no reported cases of the Omicron variant in Xi’an.

So this minor outbreak was of the Delta variant. Omicron is definitely transmitted more easily. The CDC still doesn’t say how much more transmissible Omicron is than Delta. I’ve seen some stories that suggest Omicron is twice as contagious as Delta. This research from Hong Kong (which hasn’t been peer reviewed) suggested it could spread 70 times faster. And a doctor in Cleveland recently said Omicron was the second most contagious virus on the planet:

All of that to say, China’s zero tolerance approach is really facing a challenge. The fact that the spread could coincide with the Olympics, when China is desperately trying to make a good impression, means the political pressure to keep things under control is going to be sky high.