SEOUL — Asian nations braced for the impact of potentially millions of tourists from a country racked by COVID-19 after China lifted its controls on outbound travel on Sunday.
Some are expressing grave concerns about the situation in China and coronavirus strains that could mutate within the world’s largest population.
Dr. Jerome Kim, director general of the Seoul-based International Vaccine Institute, has few words of praise for the Biden administration. Where a government once stepped up to confront the global HIV crisis, the U.S. this time did not rise to the challenge to face the worst pandemic in the modern era.
While the coronavirus evolves – from the Wuhan variant to delta to omicron to the current boogeyman, Kraken, or XBB 1.5 – even deadlier and more devastating strains could appear.
“One of the big fears is – like influenza – COVID mutations,” Dr. Kim, 63, told The Washington Times in a wide-ranging interview. “What happens if we get something like omicron – but more deadly? That is what keeps me up at night.”
Influenza – which, like COVID-19, requires booster vaccinations – undergoes mutations “every 10 years” causing “lots of deaths.” Yet COVID-19 mutates faster than the flu, Dr. Kim said.
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“The question is: Will COVID make a shift this year? That’s the nightmare.”
Dr. Kim, a Hawaiian-born Korean American, is soft-spoken and dapper, looking every inch the Yale and Duke graduate he is. A retired colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, he has worked on the front lines of the virus wars in some of the world’s poorest places.
China, where COVID-19 originated, is a middle-income country, but its current situation is worrisome, he said.
After Beijing belatedly reversed three years of “zero COVID” lockdowns in December in hopes of returning to social and economic normalcy, the number of coronavirus infections exploded nationwide. Because China’s home-grown vaccines appear less effective than Western vaccines, Dr. Kim said, the risks of human deaths and viral mutations lie within China’s largely unvaccinated elderly populace.
“Old people will be chronically ill, as they can’t clear the virus from their systems,” Dr. Kim said. “That can create mutants.”
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Beijing has lifted its onerous quarantine requirements and reopened the gates for a flood of tourism internally and abroad. A combination of the eight-day Chinese New Year celebrations starting Jan. 21 and three years of suppressed demand has led to a sharp spike in bookings for international travel.
“Chun yun,” China’s 40-day period of lunar new year travel, is often billed as the largest single migration of people in the world. Officials at the Chinese Transport Ministry last week estimated that more than 2 billion people will take trips over the next 40 days. In 2019, 6.3 million Chinese traveled overseas during the New Year holiday.
According to reports from China, the top regional destinations are South Korea, Singapore and Japan. Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. are the top long-haul spots.
The Chinese government has stopped releasing the numbers of infected and the dead from COVID-19. Some believe the less-transparent policy aims to preempt public panic or anger, but Dr. Kim noted that health care reporting nationwide could be inefficient.
Beijing “may have difficulty accessing data in real-time, like they did with SARS-1 in 2003-2004,” he said. “That started in China, but we learned about it from Hong Kong and Vietnam.”
Although Western media in China report chaotic hospitals and blazing crematoriums, external, macro data is starting to appear. South Korean health authorities, who test visitors from China upon arrival, said Sunday that 23% from China were infected with the coronavirus.
China provides the world’s largest source of tourists. While some nations demand tests from incoming Chinese, others trust their vaccination shields to hold firm. Southeast Asia is “well vaccinated,” Dr. Kim said.
The vaccination strategy is understandable given the staggering costs from three years of COVID-19, which are just beginning to be collated.
The U.N. World Health Organization estimated in November that the number of global deaths from COVID-19 was 14.83 million. That was 2.74 times higher than the numbers reported in popular online databases. The discrepancy stems from the lack of diagnostic tools and death registers in developing countries, Dr. Kim said.
The pandemic’s monetary cost could hit $140 trillion, equivalent to 2019’s global gross domestic product. “The ripples will be felt for years,” Dr. Kim said.
He is not convinced the pandemic is over because of the China situation and the 300,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. last year.
“We declared victory and went home,” he said.
America suffers from low uptake of boosters and vaccine hesitancy. U.S. vaccine skeptics, Dr. Kim said, have “contaminated two decades of progress” on vaccination despite an impressive safety record for the leading vaccine strains.
“There used to be a global consensus, but now, vaccine hesitancy is a real issue,” he said. “In sub-Saharan Africa, everyone has a cellphone, and they are reading the chatter.”
For those older than 60 and unvaccinated, COVID-19 has a 5% mortality rate, Dr. Kim said. That falls to less than 2% after vaccination and 0.1% after boosting.
Pfizer’s and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines offer “some protection against future variants,” he said. “Vaccine safety should be less of a concern than durability for cross-protection.”
The U.S. has avoided many of the problems facing China as it reopens, but Dr. Kim said health care messaging has been ineffective at critical moments.
“Vaccinations should be seen alongside things that are good for us – eat well, exercise, don’t smoke,” Dr. Kim said. “But we are not that good at doing things that are good for us.”
He praised the “warp speed” development of U.S. vaccines but accused the Trump and Biden administrations of failing to seize the moment and offer comprehensive solutions for the developing world.
“In low-income countries, full-population vaccinations would cost 30% of their total health budgets for a year, and countries don’t have the capacity,” Dr. Kim said. “A nightmare is to have the vaccine in hand and not be able to administer it.”
Therein lies the problem.
“What was needed was a leader who was able to get vaccines to an airport in, say, Senegal and then into the arms of Senegalese,” Dr. Kim said. “Who thought through the whole process?”
It’s a steep challenge but one America has mastered before.
The George W. Bush administration’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief is the benchmark program. It provides billions of U.S. dollars per year to supply effective, low-cost solutions for HIV, mainly in Africa.
The legacy endures. “Barack Obama is from Kenya, and everyone in Kenya knows Obama,” Dr. Kim said. “But who do they respect? George Bush.”
Compare then to now.
“That was real leadership, the leadership expected from America, that made a difference to global health,” Dr. Kim said. “Who was the leader in COVID?”
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.