China’s zero-Covid policy ‘won’t work’ with omicron: Epidemiologist

China’s strict zero-Covid approach will not be able to limit the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant, according to a US epidemiologist.

Beijing may not be able to use the same “authoritarian approaches” to omicron because the variant is unlike the others, said Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, Friday.

“Trying to stop omicron is a bit like trying to stop the wind,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia.”

China is “uniquely exposed” to omicron, Osterholm said, for a combination of reasons: Early studies suggest that its Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines are “not very effective” against the variant, and at the same time China’s success in preventing the spread of Covid so far this means that it has a very large population that remains vulnerable.

CNBC on Friday requested comments from Chinese embassies in Washington, DC and Singapore, but had not received a response at the time of publication of this report.

China, which registered its first omicron case in January, has doubled its zero-Covid strategy in contrast to the growing number of countries that have switched to living with the virus and lifting restrictions. Many of these countries use proven vaccines and have already experienced waves of infection – two important ways in which populations establish antibodies against the virus.

Many nations initially took an aggressive approach through mass lockdowns and severe social restrictions, but they gradually abandoned this strategy as the highly contagious delta variant spread rapidly and lockdowns became less effective.

While Europe has quickly lifted restrictions, China may take a more gradual approach, said Dale Fisher of the National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.

China has not started the “transition ritual” to let “the virus come in and deal with the consequences,” Fisher said.

“I think when China decides to move, it will be a gradual … approach similar to Singapore,” he told CNBC.

The Beijing Winter Olympics, which started on Friday, have further tested China’s zero-Covid strategy, as the country seeks to ensure that the Games run smoothly without becoming a super-spreading event.

“I think China can control Covid in the Winter Olympics, there are obviously very strict rules,” Fisher said, adding that the athletes are being tested daily.

“Anyone who has been tested or someone who is positive and I am sure the contacts will be isolated and quarantined. It is manageable and they only have to do it for two weeks,” he added.

Publication: CNBC parent NBCUniversal owns NBC Sports and NBC Olympics. NBC Olympics is the US broadcasting rights holder for all summer and winter games until 2032.

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