New Variants Not Found Weeks After China Ended Zero-COVID: Research

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According to a recent study released on Wednesday, there were no new COVID-19 variants found in Beijing in the weeks following the conclusion of China’s zero-COVID policy in late 2022. After beginning to relax its tight pandemic safeguards in early December, China experienced a surge in illnesses, raising concerns that the world’s most populous nation might become a breeding ground for new, more contagious, or severe strains.

More than a dozen nations swiftly put further restrictions on visitors from China, alleging a lack of transparency over the scope of the outbreak as well. This infuriated Beijing. However, a recent study by Chinese researchers found “no evidence that novel variants developed” during that time after analyzing 413 samples from Beijing sequenced between November 14 and December 20.

Instead, BF.7 and BA5.2, Omicron subvariants that were already present in China but were replaced by more transmissible subvariants in Western countries, accounted for more than 90% of the instances.

According to the research reported in The Lancet journal, BF.7 made up 75% of the samples, while BA5.2 made up more than 15%. “Our analysis suggests two known Omicron sub-variants—rather than any new variants—have chiefly been responsible for the current surge in Beijing, and likely China as a whole”, lead study author George Gao, a virologist at the Institute of Microbiology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in a statement.

Wolfgang Preiser and Tongai Maponga, virologists at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University not involved in the research, cautioned that it only covered a few weeks after China lifted its zero-COVID measures. “If new lineages were to emerge in the course of the surge, the study was probably too early to find them,” they said in a Lancet comment piece.

China has also dramatically cut back on its testing, potentially affecting the results, which also only cover Beijing and not the whole nation, they added. However, the virologists welcomed the “much-needed data from China”. “Although the fairly mild travel-related measures imposed by some countries for travelers from China once again might be viewed as punitive, one can but hope that this paper heralds more openness and prompt exchange of data going forward,” they said.


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