Is China's surge indicative of what's next for us?

Experts don't think so. Here’s why.

HONG KONG, CHINA - MARCH 01: A healthcare worker wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) attends...
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Season 3 of The Pandemic

COVID cases in the U.S. seem to be leveling off, albeit at a slower rate than they were a few weeks ago. Still, right now, we’re averaging about 29,253 new cases a day, which is a six percent decrease in the number of new infections we were seeing two weeks ago. That’s obviously great, but the high transmissibility of the BA.2 variant combined with the worrying surge that’s impacting China right now have a lot of us nervous. But what does China’s COVID surge mean for us?

Many experts are hypothesizing that we may not be in for the same kind of high surge that Asia is experiencing. You might be wondering how that’s possible since this is, after all, a global health crisis and efforts to contain COVID to one geographic location don’t seem to be as successful as we would have liked. That’s true, but also a lot has changed since the beginning of the pandemic.

The world started out on a more level playing field back in 2020. Basically, no one knew anything about the virus or how to control it, and no one anywhere had any immunity. In other words, trends were similar around the world because no one had developed any protection — in the form of public health mandates or vaccines — here or anywhere else, CNN reported. That’s not true anymore.

"Public health is very much a local thing," Andy Pekosz, a virologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, recently told CNN. At this point, different countries have had wildly different responses to the virus in terms of mandates, vaccine accessibility, and the percent of the population who’ve been infected.

“All of that means it's just difficult to make blanket statements about how things are going to go forward. You would probably expect to see more variation from country to country in terms of case numbers and surges and fatality rates from here on out," Pekosz told CNN.

Experts think that one of the reasons that China is having such a high surge right now may be that the vaccination rates of China’s older population is quite low. According to a study published last week in British Medical Journal, 90% of people who’ve died in China from COVID infection had not received the full vaccine regimen.

It’s terrifying that so much of China’s most vulnerable population was unprotected, but it will hopefully play out very differently for Americans. Even though the overall vaccination rate is lower in the U.S. than it is in China, almost 90% of Americans 65 and older have gotten two doses of the vaccine, and 70% have gotten a booster, according to the CDC.

The U.S. 's vaccine strategy may also help us avoid a massive surge. People in China have mostly received Chinese-made Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, which showed very low efficacy rates in late-stage trials. In contrast, the vaccines disseminated in the U.S. have continued to maintain efficacy, even against newer mutations. "I spend enormous amounts of time in China, and I've been advising them to switch vaccines for many months, and they just won't do it,” Ian Lipkin, a professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, told CNN.

The reality is that China has mostly tried to contain COVID through lockdowns. This seemed kind of foolproof at the start, but now that the Chinese population is being exposed to COVID, they appear to have less of an immunity against it. Because so many people in the U.S. have been infected with COVID — about 140 million people — we just have fewer people who are susceptible to infection. "The notion that you can somehow conquer this with lockdowns is not going to work unless you've coupled the lockdown with an effective vaccine strategy,” Lipkin told CNN.

So, while the U.S. government’s response to COVID has been imperfect and widely criticized, as long as we don’t give up now, experts say we may be able to avoid another horrifying surge. Davidson Hamer, a professor of global health and medicine at Boston University, told Medical News Today that the U.S. needs to continue testing and tracking and to be prepared to reinstate mask mandates if our numbers start rising. So, yes, China’s surge is worrisome and you shouldn’t throw your KN95s away just yet, but it may not be another looming disaster.