rise in cases in China raises risk of new variants, experts say

NOEL CELIS / AFP This photo shows a patient being treated for Covid-19 at the First Center Hospital in Tianjin on December 28, 2022. – Chinese cities have faced a surge in infections, a shortage of medicines and an overflow of service hospitals and crematoria after Beijing’s sudden dismantling its “zero Covid” lockdown and testing regime. (Photo: Noel Celis / AFP)

NOEL CELIS / AFP

China has faced an increase in infections since the beginning of December, hundreds of variants may increase in Europe, experts warn. (Illustration: This photo shows a patient being treated for Covid-19 at the First Center Hospital in Tianjin on December 28, 2022.)

Covid – 19 – BQ.1, CH.1 or even BF.7 can quickly break out in Europe. An explosion of Covid-19 cases in China since the beginning of December, when the country lifts its measures “zero covid”could create a potential breeding ground for the emergence of new varieties, health experts warn.

Since the lifting of health restrictions in this country, which has almost a fifth of the world’s population, “at least 250 million people have been infected in China”said this Tuesday, December 27, Christian Bréchot, virologist and president of the Global Virus Network on BFMTV, specifying that so far “about 660 million cases” had been detected worldwide since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

A poorly vaccinated population

Each new infection increases the chances of the virus mutating, estimates Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva. “The fact that 1.4 billion people are suddenly exposed to SARS-CoV-2 obviously creates conditions that promote the emergence of variants”he explained to AFP.

Mutations are all the more likely since the Chinese population is very little vaccinated. Soumya Swaminathan, who was chief scientist for the World Health Organization (WHO) until November, also emphasized the vulnerability of many elderly people who have not received their booster vaccine. “We must closely monitor any emergence of variants of concern”she told the Indian Express newspaper website.

“Given the intense circulation of the virus, and therefore the increased risk of mutations, a potential breeding ground for the virus from China may arise”, meanwhile, Bruno Lina, professor of virology at the University of Lyon, France, assessed to the paper The cross.

Increased monitoring of these new variants in China

Xu Wenbo, head of the virus control institute at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said hospitals across the country will collect samples from patients and upload the sequencing information to a new national database. , which will allow authorities to monitor new strains. in real time.

More than 130 new sub-lineages of the Omicron variant have been discovered in China over the past three months, he said last week. Among them are XXB and BQ.1 and their own sub-lineages, which have spread across the US and parts of Europe in recent months as a swarm of sub-varieties vying for worldwide dominance.

But BA.5.2 and BF.7 remain the main Omicron strains discovered in China, Xu Wenbo said, adding that the different sub-lineages are likely to circulate together.

BF.7 concerned in France

The BF.7 variant is particularly talked about in France, it is especially accused of being mainly responsible for the wave of pollution in China. However, this descendant of the BA.5 sub-variant of Omicron, which has become the majority in Beijing since December, is not new, it was seen on May 13 in Belgium.

What worries BF.7 is its virulence and infectivity. This was explained by Antoine Flahaut on Twitter “BF.7 wanted an R0 [taux de reproduction, NDLR] from 10 to 18.6. This means that an infected person will on average transmit the virus to between 10 and 18.6 other people, compared to 5.08 on average for Omicron”. He would escape vaccine-acquired immunity in terms of transmission and mild forms” added epidemiologist.

A soup “more than 500 new Omicron subvariants have been identified in recent months”recalled Antoine Flahault. “All variants when more transmissible than previously dominant variants – such as BQ.1, B2.75.2, XBB, CH.1 or BF.7 – represent absolute threats as they can cause new waves”said the epidemiologist.

“Today, none of these variants appear to pose particular new risks for more severe symptoms, but new variants may in the near future.”he added.

Border control

In response to the surge in cases, the United States, Italy, Japan, India and Malaysia announced this week that they would tighten their border controls. Washington will require a negative Covid test from January 5 for all travelers arriving by plane from China. The French government, which ensures “Follow the development of the situation very closely”said to himself “clear” Wednesday “to study all the useful measures”.

India and Japan will impose mandatory PCR tests on all passengers arriving from China, a measure that Antoine Flahault says could be a way to circumvent any delays in information from Beijing.

“If we manage to sample and sequence all the viruses identified in all travelers from China, we will know almost immediately if new variants are emerging and spreading.” in the countryside, he said.

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