LIFE IN THE TIME OF COVID
The China Syndrome
As I stated in last week’s column, it’s déjà vu all over again. Now the problem is new strains of COVID, which are beginning to take over in many countries including the United States. But more importantly is the rapid spread of multiple COVID sub-variants in China.
Initially in response to COVID, the Chinese government came up with a zero tolerance policy. Whole cities were locked down. China developed its own vaccines, called Sinovac and Sinopharm. These are attenuated viral vaccines. These are classic type of vaccines like the Sabin vaccine for polio. This is different from the mRNA vaccines that are used in the United States, Europe and much of the remaining world. They are not nearly as effective as the mRNA vaccines but reach World Health Organization qualifications to be declared effective.
In response to public political pressure, a phenomenon very rarely seen in China, the Chinese government recently did a 180-degree change in its COVID policy. It announced that COVID was controlled, and that strict containment policies were no longer necessary. This effectively reopened the entire country.
It was clear that a full containment policy was no longer working. It had damaged the economy significantly, but the precipitating incident that led to the public outcry was multiple deaths from a fire in an apartment building in Xinjiang province and not part of a long term public health plan.
In response to the changes in policy, the Chinese government has announced that this was their plan all along. Additionally, very little accurate information seems to be coming out of China about the extent of the flare-up. The Chinese government only considers death to be by COVID if there is nothing else in the patient’s history that the death can be blamed on. Much of the information that we have in the West is from individuals who have effectively “smuggled” what they are seeing out of the country. So far, in spite of massive outbreaks, collapsing healthcare systems, and 100 percent-plus filling of ICU and hospital beds, the Chinese government so far has claimed that less than 100 deaths in the country are from COVID.
It is somewhat tragic, that after such an extensive program to prevent people from being exposed to COVID, the Chinese government did not take advantage of the time they had to prepare the country for this inevitable outbreak.
They did have a vaccine and initially reported 85 percent of the population having received it more than a year ago, but less than one percent have received boosters in the past six months. The vaccines they have used were designed to be effective against the initial strains of COVID, which are no longer prevalent. Most of the vaccination series were given over a year ago. It is not clear what the level of immunity in the population is currently. Even with the control the Chinese government has over its population, it is very clear that they’ve reached a new crisis level in the pandemic.
The United States and other countries have banned travel from China without a recent negative COVID test. We know that, in the earliest stages of the disease, the test is negative. While this would significantly decrease those who get admitted who have active COVID, it will not eliminate contamination. To make matters worse, the virus keeps mutating and new strains are being introduced all the time.
The term China syndrome was coined in the early 1970s, referring to a fictional scenario in which there is a nuclear reactor breach and radioactive material burns a hole through its containment vessel and through the earth all the way to China. The term has come to mean a massive catastrophic failure process with major collateral damage. Certainly, it could be used now to describe what can only be massive tragedy in China because its leadership did not use the time it created to prepare for this major outbreak.
Dr. Richard Sternberg is a retired Bassett Hospital orthopedic surgeon.