Even as it deals with increasing outbreaks in Shanghai and other areas of the extremely infectious Omicron strain caused by sporadic immunization campaigns, China has left half of its senior population vulnerable to a serious Covid-19 infection.
Shanghai initiated a two-phase lockdown of its 26 million people on Monday to battle a wave of largely asymptomatic infections that have been rapidly growing in the population. More than a million people in Hong Kong were infected during a similar outbreak in January. It’s possible for infections to spread outside of Shanghai, but that’s less likely in other parts of China because Shanghai doesn’t have a closed border.
According to a University of Hong Kong (HKU) study, more than 130 million Chinese aged 60 and up are either unvaccinated or have had less than three doses, putting them at higher risk of getting severe Covid symptoms or dying if they contract the virus. Unless they had three doses, China’s homegrown Sinovac vaccine was found to be less effective in preventing death from Covid among the elderly than the internationally manufactured BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine.
The vast majority of the population has been immunized with either Sinovac or Sinopharm vaccines, both of which require a triple dose, according to researchers.
According to the HKU study, three doses of Sinovac were 98 percent effective in avoiding serious disease in adults over 60, which is identical to the BioNTech vaccine. However, compared to BioNTech, two jabs were only 72 percent efficient in preventing severe cases and 77 percent successful in preventing mortality.
The sheer size of China’s exposed senior population — which is larger than Japan’s whole population — has forced officials to impose limited lockdown measures in an effort to contain outbreaks in areas such as Jilin and Shenzhen.
Three inactivated inoculation injections, according to Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at HKU and one of the study’s authors, “gives a very high level of protection.” This finding, while highlighting the efficiency of local Omicron vaccines, will concern Chinese public health officials, as only 20 percent of people aged 80 and up have got three doses.
When Covid eluded Beijing’s rigorous border controls at the end of 2021, Beijing upped its attempts to provide a third immunization to the elderly. Experts say the vaccine push has been hampered by the country’s success in suppressing the virus, as well as the elder population’s distrust of western medicine.
Yanzhong Huang, an expert on public health policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York said that the early success of the zero-Covid program has generated a false sense of security among the elderly.
“Many older people thought ‘there is no virus, why bother getting vaccinated and risk suffering from the side-effects?’,” he added.
Most seniors had not been vaccinated or had not had the third jab, said a staff member at a Beijing aged care facility.
“Some families are unwilling to get their relatives vaccinated. They’re concerned about the possible side-effects,” he said.
Huang said vaccine fear was particularly common in rural areas, which are more exposed in the case of an uncontrolled outbreak due to a lack of hospitals and doctors.
Mainland China’s vaccination coverage is better than Hong Kong’s, where in early February, 69 percent of residents aged 80 and up were unvaccinated.
Since then, Omicron has ripped through the unvaccinated senior population, leaving the territory with the greatest number of deaths per capita in the world.
Over the previous fortnight, China has registered more than 65,900 infections, forcing several towns to enact local lockdowns as officials attempted to prevent the tragedy that befell Hong Kong. The most vulnerable appear to have been protected by these efforts.
According to official records, there have only been two Covid fatalities in the country this month. Experts, on the other hand, predicted that government would impose ever-stricter restrictions due to the massive under-vaccinated senior population.
“Until the costs exceed the benefits, the government has no choice to give up zero-Covid,” added Huang.
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