World fears new wave of COVID in China, ponders how to help Xi

By Trevor Hunnicutt, Julie Steenhuysen and Andreas Rinke

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Officials and global health experts outside China are watching anxiously a surge in COVID-19, concerned that a nation of 1.4 billion people is inadequately vaccinated and may lack the tools health workers to treat a wave of disease expected to kill more than a million people by 2023.

Some US and European officials are struggling to figure out how, or if, they can help mitigate a crisis they fear could harm the global economy, further constrain corporate supply chains and spawn troubling new variants of the coronavirus.

“We have emphasized that we are ready to assist in any way they may deem acceptable,” US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday.

Advanced health system readiness, accurate and shared data collection, and open communication are all important to combating mass coronavirus infections, say health experts from countries outside China that have been battling their own waves of COVID . Many of these elements appear to be missing in China, they say.

President Xi Jinping has long insisted that the country’s one-party system is best suited to manage the disease and that Chinese vaccines are superior to Western counterparts, despite some evidence to the contrary.

Democratic governments find themselves in a diplomatic predicament, eager to help stem a spreading crisis with global and domestic health and economic implications in a way that the Chinese government may be willing to accept.

“Chinese vaccine nationalism is deeply tied to Xi’s pride, and accepting Western assistance would not only embarrass Xi but also undermine his oft-touted narrative that China’s model of governance is superior,” Craig said. Singleton, deputy director of the China program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

European and US officials are conducting careful behind-the-scenes talks with Chinese counterparts, while deliberately issuing public statements intended to clarify that the ball is in Beijing’s court.

Officials in Washington and Beijing discussed how to handle COVID earlier this month in talks in China to prepare for Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit early next year, the national security adviser said last week of the United States Jake Sullivan. He declined to give details, citing “sensitive diplomatic channels”.

One area of ​​potential Western assistance is whether China would accept BioNTech’s updated mRNA vaccine designed to target currently circulating variants of the Omicron virus, which many experts believe is more effective than China’s shots.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz discussed the issue in a visit to Beijing last month together with BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin.

However, the United States and other Western countries are not overtly encouraging China to accept Western-made mRNA vaccines, White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha told reporters on Thursday. “We are ready to help any country in the world with vaccines, treatments, anything else we can help with,” he said.

Beijing has said “institutional benefits” will help it weather the epidemic without foreign assistance, and China’s estimated COVID death toll is still less than the 1.1 million deaths in the United States and 2.1 million in Europe.

(Graphic: Living with the virus? –

But US drugmaker Pfizer reached a deal last week to export its antiviral treatment Paxlovid to China through a local firm, saying it was working with all interested parties to ensure adequate supply.

“Whether China asks or not, as a citizen of Beijing, I welcome the US government’s attitude,” Hu Xijin, former editor of the party tabloid Global Times, said on Twitter, adding that he hoped the US government United pushes Pfizer to lower the price of Paxlovid.


The rivalry between the US and China, the world’s two largest economies, has intensified in recent months, with the Biden administration trying to bring China’s semiconductor sector to its knees and push Beijing out politically in Asia and Africa.

President Joe Biden has described the state of global politics as a tipping point between democracy and autocracies.

But the two countries remain deeply intertwined, with China the largest trading partner of the United States and the main customer of many American companies.

“We want China to get COVID right,” Blinken said earlier this month. “It is first of all in the interest of the Chinese people, but it is also in the interest of people all over the world.”

Luxury companies exposed to China such as France-based LVMH and industrial indexes have recently fallen on COVID concerns, and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell signaled his concerns last week.

“China faces a very challenging system in reopening,” Powell said, adding that its manufacturing, export and supply chain remain critical. “It’s a risky situation.”

Health experts outside China despair it may be too late to avert a tragedy.

“What do you do about a Category 5 hurricane when it’s an hour and a half offshore? If you haven’t already, it’s too late,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of the Minnesota.

“This pandemic is going to explode (in China) in the coming weeks,” he said. “It’s a pity they didn’t think about it six or 10 months ago. They could have bought time to be in a better position.”

More than 160 million people in China are thought to have diabetes, and there are eight million unvaccinated Chinese over the age of 80, said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. These are risk factors for severe COVID.

South Korea, which has one of the lowest COVID death rates of any major country, has managed the pandemic by vaccinating as many people as possible, shoring up hospitals before reopening, and communicating the disease to the public, said Dr. Jerome Kim, director general of the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul.

Officials set up health centers and apps that told people with symptoms how to avoid infecting others, he said.

“Is it installed in China now? We don’t know.”

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington, Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Andreas Rinke in Berlin; Additional reporting by Marisa Taylor, Hyunsu Yim, Jeff Mason and Michael Martina; Screenplay by Heather Timmons; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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