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China should only remove all its border restrictions once there were few infections in other countries and the vast majority of the Chinese population was vaccinated against the coronavirus, the country’s leading respiratory diseases expert said on Sunday.
In an interview with the Southern People Weekly magazine, Dr Zhong Nanshan said 80 to 85 per cent of China’s 1.4 billion people would have to be vaccinated, a milestone that could be reached by the end of the year. However, maintaining the strictest epidemic control measures would be unsustainable, putting great stress on China, he said.
“Why are we still employing strict measures to prevent and control the disease? Our vaccination rate has not reached over 80 per cent yet. Prevention is therefore still very important,” he said.
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China largely controlled the spread of the coronavirus within its borders, even before Covid-19 vaccines were available, and sporadic outbreaks were suppressed by locking down residential communities and carrying out multiple rounds of testing, with tens of millions of tests carried out within days.
At least 1.1 billion people, or 78 per cent of China’s population, had received at least the first dose of a vaccine by September 19, according to the State Council’s Covid-19 task force.
On Monday, China reported only one symptomatic local case in the city of Harbin, the former epicentre of the outbreak in China’s northeast, and two asymptomatic local cases in Ili Kazakh autonomous prefecture in far western Xinjiang. Of the 39 imported cases, 26 patients showed symptoms.
While the country has largely kept the coronavirus at bay, another precondition for China to scrap its border restrictions would be when infections were few, vaccination rates high and death rates low in the rest of the world, especially in major countries, according to Zhong.
“China cannot carry on like this [with strict control measures] because Covid-19 is a global disease that requires China and the rest of the world to work together and beat it,” he said.
The global death rate of Covid-19 was still at a “very high” 1 to 2 per cent – 10 times that of the flu – which should not be easily dismissed, Zhong said.
“When the death rate becomes very low, having Covid-19 could be part of the norm. That is, when people get sick, the vast majority of them can recover – not like now, where two in a hundred people could die,” he said.
Although the global mortality rate of Covid-19 has dropped mainly because more people have been vaccinated, the number of newly reported cases remains high.
To curb imported cases, China’s Covid-19 task force has asked local authorities to build centralised quarantine facilities for inbound travellers by the end of October.
Port cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, where such cases are often detected, are to set up specialised large-scale “health stations” to reduce the chance of cross-transmission within the quarantine facilities.
Nearly 200 medical staff members were stationed in the 333,000-square metre Guangzhou International Health Station in September, the first to open in China. It cost more than 1.7 billion yuan (US$264 million) to build and had 5,074 rooms, state news agency Xinhua reported.
Xiamen’s 136,000-square metre facility will have 6,001 rooms when it opens in March.
In the interview, Zhong also stressed that China’s coronavirus strategy centred on prevention rather than treatment because of unknown factors such as long protection from vaccines lasted and whether the death rate would continue to drop.
“When all these are uncertain, our guiding thought is to promote healthy living. That means we will not spend a lot of energy researching how to save the ill,” he said. “Once the virus has spread, medical services, facilities and human resources will all be overcapacity and society will collapse.”
He said neighbouring countries that had opened their borders entirely had to close them again because of widespread transmission.
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This article Reopen China’s borders when vaccination at home is high and cases overseas are low, says top doctor first appeared on South China Morning Post