Chinese experts confirmed that 15 cases of COVID-19 variants of concern have been detected on the mainland since early December, including the highly contagious XBB.1.5 and BQ.1 variants. However, they said that the strains have not spread widely and are unlikely to cause major outbreaks in the first half of this year. The country has been closely monitoring the emergence of new variants with high transmissibility or immunity evasiveness. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention has analyzed the genome sequences of samples from over 16,900 COVID-19 cases from December to Thursday. Among the 15 infections detected are one XBB.1.5 case and one BQ.1 reported this month.
China’s dominant COVID-19 strains are BA.5.2 and BF.7, and experts have noted that the majority of the population has recently been infected and has developed a high level of neutralizing antibodies and immunological memory cells in their bodies, reducing the possibility of large-scale domestic outbreaks. However, vulnerable and high-risk groups, such as people aged 65 and above and those with pre-existing illnesses, could get infected again.
While China’s herd immunity is strong, with only sporadic infections recently, experts have cautioned that the risk of a second infection will increase when the number of patients infected with novel strains grows. Over time, protection against new variants could diminish, but it will remain effective, so the risk of a fresh wave of infections is very small.
As of Thursday, the mainland reported 98 COVID-related deaths at hospitals, including one caused by the virus alone. The remainder were caused by a combination of COVID-19 and other pre-existing illnesses. The number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals has significantly decreased, with only 20,000 people hospitalized on Thursday, down 98.8 percent from the peak recorded on January 5. Despite the strong herd immunity and the decrease in the number of hospitalizations and deaths, experts stressed the importance of continuing to closely monitor new strains and to formulate future vaccination strategies.