NYT wonders: Why is highly vaccinated China locking down again?

Three guesses, and the first two don’t count. The initial impulse to erect barriers and initiate lockdowns when South Africa first identified the Omicron variant might be understandable as a response to the unknown. Within a few weeks, though, it had become clear that while Omicron was orders of magnitude more transmissible, it was also perhaps an order of magnitude or more less malevolent, especially to populations that had largely acquired immunity, whether from previous infection or through effective vaccination.

If that’s the case, the New York Times wonders, why has China continued its longest and broadest lockdown since the start of the pandemic?

China’s ability to control the virus has come a long way since the pandemic started: It has inoculated nearly 1.2 billion people and set up a nationwide electronic health database for contact tracing.

Yet it has continued to rely on the same authoritarian virus-fighting methods from early 2020, including strict quarantines, border closings and lockdowns. These have led to food and medical shortages and growing questions about how much longer its zero-Covid strategy, the last in the world, can continue.

Despite the frustration, the authorities in Xi’an on Wednesday declared the city’s battle with the virus a victory. Fourteen days into the lockdown, city officials said that Xi’an had achieved “zero Covid on a societal level,” though its 13 million residents remained unable to leave home.

That’s a rather strange definition of victory, even in a totalitarian state like China. After all, Beijing relies on its economic strength to compete militarily and politically around the world. It can’t afford to take a massive economic hit from another long shutdown. And yet that’s exactly what they’re doing, and apparently going full lockdown across the board in doing so:

“The district security guards are like prison guards and we are like prisoners,” said Tom Zhao, a Xi’an resident. Mr. Zhao, 38, said he had joined dozens of chat groups last week searching for anyone who could help him find medicine for his mother, who has early-stage diabetes.

Again, one might be able to comprehend this as a momentary knee-jerk response to the emergence of a variant as massively transmissible as Omicron. The remarkably mild outcomes relative to other variants, however, should have China looking at it the way some other epidemiologists are — as a potential off-ramp to emergency-pandemic actions and the path to effective endemic herd immunity.

That’s based on having an effectively vaccinated population, though. Does China have that? They’re suuuuuure not acting like it, and for good reason:

The authorities are nevertheless worried, in a country that has stridently stuck by its zero-Covid policy — and held up its success fighting the virus as proof that its authoritarian style of leadership saves lives.

The Beijing Winter Olympics and the Lunar New Year holiday are a few weeks away, and China’s vaccines appear to be less effective than their Western competitors, particularly against variants. The country has yet to approve mRNA technology for its vaccines, and while booster shots are now widely available, their takeup in the country has been slower than the initial jabs.

Data from China is next to worthless on this question, since Beijing constantly cooks its books and lies about the pandemic both inside and outside of China. We have data from other countries that relied heavily on Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines for their vaccination programs even against the original virus, and the data showed both to be largely ineffective. While Western vaccines produced large declines in infection rates and especially hospitalizations and deaths, countries using China’s vaccines experience massive waves of all three.

That’s why China locked down in August as Delta swept the globe too, but at least that variant’s malevolence provided some reason for a sharp response. Omicron’s mild profile in effectively vaccinated populations doesn’t justify any such extreme response. Beijing wants to protect its own mythology as a COVID beater, when in reality it appears that their lack of effective development of vaccines has kept the entire country as vulnerable as it was from the beginning.

One has to wonder, then, whether these Olympics actually can proceed under lockdown conditions. Even vaccinated and otherwise healthy athletes can and will bring Omicron with them to Beijing and the winter Games. There is no escaping this variant, here or abroad. Beijing had better hope that Omicron is much less fatal for unvaccinated populations as it is for fully vaccinated, or they’d better postpone these games until they get an effective vaccine distributed to enough of their own population.

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