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Chinese Omicron Study Renews Debate Over ‘Zero Covid’ Policy

A new Chinese study about the relatively low risks associated with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has reignited discussion about whether the country’s aggressive response to Covid-19 cases is necessary.

The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Saturday published a study that found that 22 of more than 33,000 patients hospitalized after testing positive for Omicron developed severe illness. All of the patients who developed a more serious illness were over 60 years old and had underlying medical conditions, according to the study, which was conducted from March 22 to May 3 at four Shanghai hospitals.

In China, anyone who tests positive for the coronavirus is sent to a hospital or isolation facility.

Under the country’s “zero Covid” policy — which shut down Shanghai for almost two months — a single positive test result can set off a lockdown of an entire apartment complex, confining hundreds and even thousands of residents to their homes for weeks with very little notice. When someone tests positive for the coronavirus, residents within a certain proximity might be ordered to take tests for three straight days to be cleared as a low health risk.

The lockdowns and constant testing have brought the Chinese economy to a standstill while fueling resentment among parts of the population that say the measures are excessive.

Last week, a protest erupted in Kunshan, a city bordering Shanghai, over rules preventing commuters from heading to the financial center for work. It came after a demonstration last month in Beijing, the capital, where a group of Peking University students protested after they were ordered to isolate themselves while teachers and their families were not bound to similar restrictions.

One of the study’s 19 authors was Zhang Wenhong, an infectious-disease specialist and one of China’s leading voices on Covid-19 who has argued against excessive lockdowns. The study “provides evidence for refining Covid-19 public health strategies” to avoid overwhelming medical resources, the authors wrote, without making specific recommendations.

The findings were in line with other studies that have concluded that Omicron is overall less severe than the Delta variant, though it can be deadly for some people. Still, it generated heated debate on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform. In the three days since the study’s release, the hashtag about the report received more than 98 million views and 10,000 discussions on the platform.

Some people questioned the need for lockdowns to contain the virus after seeing the data. One person noted that there were no severe illnesses for low-risk people and that the portion of people who developed severe disease was less than one-tenth of one percent.

“However, we have paid such a huge price (materially and mentally),” this person wrote, adding that the zero-Covid policy seemed “ignorant.”

Defenders of China’s hard-line stance saw the study as a political issue. One Weibo post accused Dr. Zhang of publishing the paper to justify Shanghai’s initial approach to containing the virus with more targeted restrictions. That strategy was abandoned in favor of a full lockdown in April and May.

Claire Fu contributed research.

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