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Potential China wave is 'wild card' for ending Covid emergency: WHO

Projections suggest that the world's second largest economy could now face an explosion of cases and more than a million deaths next year after the abrupt change in course. (AFP)

Speaking to news agency Reuters, Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, who sits on a WHO committee tasked with advising on the status of the COVID emergency, 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."

Koopmans added, "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."

The views of WHO advisors and many leading scientists represent a shift since China began to dismantle its zero-Covid policy recently, following a rapid rise in cases and unprecedented public protests.

Projections suggest that the world's second largest economy could now face an explosion of cases and more than a million deaths next year after the abrupt change in course.

China has seen a surge in infections after ending strict Covid-19 restrictions, while data from the WHO shows infections have risen in countries such as Japan, South Korea and the US in recent days.

China's zero-Covid policy

China's zero-Covid policy had kept infections and deaths comparatively low among the 1.4 billion strong population, but WHO labelled it not "sustainable" this year due to rising concerns over its impact on both citizens' lives and the nation's economy. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping's move last week has changed the global picture, experts believe.

As recently as September, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had said "the end is in sight" for the pandemic. Last week, he told reporters in Geneva that he was "hopeful" of an end to the emergency some time next year.

Koopmans and other WHO advisory committee members are due to make their recommendation on the PHEIC in late January. Tedros makes the final decision and is not obligated to follow the committee recommendation.

'Prepared to manage any situation'

Meanwhile, the Indian government has asked the country's states to keep a sharp lookout for any new variants of the coronavirus, citing an increase in infections in China and other parts of the globe.

Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya met senior government officials today to discuss the matter, with all those present wearing masks - a practice that has not been mandatory in most parts of the country for several months.

After the meeting concluded, Mansukh Mandaviya said, "Covid is not over yet. I have directed all concerned to be alert and strengthen surveillance."

He added that the team is prepared to manage any situation.

Most countries have removed coronavirus-related restrictions as the threat of a dangerous new variant of the virus or of a major surge in infections has receded in the latter half of this year.

"Dr Tedros has to strike a balance here," WHO Emergencies chief Mike Ryan said while speaking to reporters in Geneva last week. "I think the world still has… work to do. The job is not done."

Ryan added that WHO's advisory committee was likely to meet informally before their official meeting next month, adding that unequal access to vaccines worldwide remained another key reason why Covid-19 still likely represented an emergency.

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