HONG KONG: China's strict Covid-19 control measures are unlikely to be eased in the near future, but will be fine-tuned to minimise disruptions to economic growth, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang implied.
Delivering the annual government report to deputies of the National People's Congress on Saturday, Li said China would continue with "routine" epidemic control measures, including preventing both outbreaks introduced from overseas and any resurgence in local cases. This indicates strict epidemic control measures at the border and within the country will continue.
Li's remarks are the highest-level confirmation from Beijing that the zero-Covid response, introduced at the early stages of the pandemic two years ago, will continue.
It comes amid recent speculation over - and calls for - a change, to resume smooth international exchanges, and ease pressure on the industrial and services sectors, both hard-hit by the tough control measures.
Last month, chief epidemiologist Wu Zunyong of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said several teams were studying to improve the current response, as the stringent measures had left private companies and the self-employed struggling to survive.
Li acknowledged that the service industry, including catering, hotels, retail and tourism, had been dealt serious blows by sporadic Covid-19 outbreaks in the country, but said it was the "timely and effective" handling of the outbreaks that had ensured public safety and health, and maintained the normal order of production and life last year.
Li did not mention Hong Kong's spiralling Covid-19 crisis in his work report, but Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US non-profit, said the city's experience could convince Chinese leaders that its zero-Covid strategy should not be easily abandoned.
Based on what was happening in Hong Kong, the leadership might feel "that more opening could lead to a rapid spread of the virus, especially when the vaccination rate is low or your existing vaccines are not effective", Dr Huang said.
"The health care system will be overwhelmed and this will also have implications for sociopolitical stability," he added.
China has one of the world's highest inoculation rates for Covid-19, with 87% of the total population fully vaccinated, mostly with inactivated varieties, and nearly 40% of the population having received a booster dose. The vaccination rate among the elderly is relatively lower, with 79% of those aged 60 and over fully vaccinated.
However, the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant that can easily escape immunity has cast a shadow over how well the population can cope in the future.
Although no major shift was promised, Li hinted the rules would be adjusted to balance the needs of economic growth.
"Epidemic control measures will be constantly refined … Occurrences of local cases must be handled in a scientific and targeted manner, and the normal order of work and life must be ensured," Li said.
Greater efforts would be made to train public health personnel, and capacity for monitoring major epidemics, as well as early warning, contract tracing and epidemiological investigation processes, would be improved, he added.
Xiang Dong, deputy director of the State Council's research office, said minimising interruptions to public life would require local governments to stop the "one size fits all" approach, and not impose unnecessary citywide or districtwide lockdowns, public transport suspensions, or epidemic control measures in the services sector.
"Both 'relaxed' and 'excessive' prevention and control tendencies should be resolutely stopped," Xiang said.
But Huang said fine-tuning of the coronavirus response is "easier said than done", especially for non-first-tier cities with limited local capacities in finance and public health resources.
"As long as it's zero-Covid [policy], those government officials would not be able to tolerate even low risk [levels] and it would be easier for them to eliminate all risks," Huang said.
China would also step up research into the prevention of coronavirus variants and accelerate research and development of Covid-19 vaccines and effective therapeutics, Li pledged.
Five Covid-19 vaccines have so far been approved for general launch in China, the latest being a recombinant protein version by Anhui Zhifei Longcom Biopharmaceutical given conditional approval on Monday.
Late-stage overseas clinical trials that ended last June showed the vaccine to be about 81.5% effective against any degree of severity of Covid-19 after completion of the three-dose regimen. The vaccine was more than 81% effective against the Delta variant and offered "good protection" against Omicron, according to a company statement.
China has also approved a domestically produced antibody treatment, jointly developed by Brii Biosciences and Tsinghua University. However, this requires intravenous infusion. Paxlovid - Pfizer's Covid-19 oral pill - was approved for emergency use in China last month, but the country has yet to successfully develop a similar, easily administered, small molecular antiviral drug.