BEIJING, Oct 7 (Reuters) – The growing economic toll of China’s zero COVID policy is raising hopes among investors that Beijing could finally begin to lay the groundwork for the delicate epidemiological and political task of changing course after the congress. of the Communist Party this month.

It is unclear whether the ruling party’s Oct. 16 congress will shed light on easing strict measures to extinguish all national COVID-19 outbreaks, rather than seeking to live with the pandemic. Any change, economists and investors predict, would involve gradual steps towards reopening from the first half of 2023 at the earliest.

Meeting the challenges of reversing one of the world’s toughest COVID regimes would require a clear timeline and strategy for booster shots in a country of 1.4 billion people that has gone its own way on inoculations , according to infectious disease and vaccine experts.

Join now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

This approach has virtually closed its borders to travel and led to unpredictable shutdowns of major cities, stifling the world’s second-largest economy and stoking the anger and frustration of many citizens.

Xi Jinping, who is set to secure an unprecedented third term of leadership at the congress held every five years, reiterated that the zero-COVID policy is “correct and effective” during a June visit to Wuhan, the city central China where COVID emerged in 2019. .

“In all the conversations we’ve had about Asia’s macro outlook, the number one question for investors is when China will reopen and what the roadmap would look like,” Morgan Stanley economists wrote in a statement. research note last week.

“We believe a reopening will occur, as the strict approach to managing COVID has led to significantly lower revenue growth challenges and a sharp rise in youth unemployment – results that are at odds with the objective. common prosperity policy.”

Goldman Sachs analysts predict that China will begin to ease policy in the April-June quarter.

China has repeatedly tweaked zero-COVID implementation but has not described an exit from a policy that aims to contain every outbreak, which state media tout as showing superior governance Chinese on that of the West.

LOCAL HITS

Zero-COVID, while disruptive, has kept death and infection rates to a minimum, which could reassure the public that preparing for a gradual reopening would allow China to balance economic concerns and COVID risks.

But China’s population, the largest in the world, has little natural immunity given the harsh lockdown policy.

Before exposing the Chinese people to a new COVID risk, authorities should prepare a health system with great inequality in the geographical distribution of resources for a surge in infections and adjust its messages to people accustomed to the extremes of zero-COVID.

China has nine domestically developed COVID vaccines approved for use, more than any other country. But none have been updated to target the highly infectious Omicron variant, as Pfizer-BioNTech (22UAy.DE) and Moderna (MRNA.O) have done for boosters in many developed countries.

A woman is tested for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a nucleic acid testing site, following the coronavirus disease outbreak, in Shanghai, China September 23, 2022. REUTERS/Aly song

Authorities have not approved any foreign-made COVID vaccines. A recent study showed that the injections most widely used in China were effective in preventing severe cases and deaths, but showed less effectiveness against the Omicron variant.

Local mRNA vaccines under development have not been given the national green light, but Indonesia said last week that it had approved the emergency use of an mRNA vaccine developed by the Chinese company Walvax Biotechnology Co Ltd.

Executives from three Chinese vaccine makers told Reuters that a key uncertainty is whether regulators will allow accelerated opportunities for new vaccines like China did in 2020 by allowing emergency use before efficacy data from large clinical trials are generated.

Without acceleration, candidates who started clinical trials this year would not have the data needed to seek approval by the end of the year, said an executive who, like others, has asked not to. not be named given the sensitivity of the issue.

TIME IS IMPORTANT

For latecomers whose vaccines face the unpredictability of future viral mutation while navigating a long regulatory road, “chances are you’ll never follow the variants or the regulatory process,” said one. other frame.

Two leaders expressed skepticism about whether regulators would let new candidates skip early trials in unvaccinated people, a group that is increasingly difficult to bring together, even though such vaccines are more likely to be used as boosters .

The National Health Commission and National Medical Products Administration did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

The timing of any booster deployment is also crucial.

“If you’re boosting everyone now but you don’t have to go out for several months, maybe it’s too soon. You want to have the booster at the right time,” said Benjamin Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University. from Hong Kong.

“What I haven’t seen on the continent is this overall plan and the overall timeline.”

Many countries offer second booster shots. Chinese CDC said in September, a second well-timed reminder is needed to safely emerge from the pandemic. The government only allows one recall.

Some experts recommend importing Western-made projectiles and accelerating the development of local alternatives, including Omicron-targeting projectiles.

“China should… import or develop a highly effective vaccine as soon as possible,” said Zuofeng Zhang, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Cowling said vaccines made in the West and candidates developed in China showing promising data would also provide more options and help alleviate vaccine hesitancy, a key reason why vaccination rates among older adults remain lower. to the Chinese national average.

Join now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

Reporting by Miyoung Kim, Roxanne Liu and Tony Munroe; Written by Miyoung Kim; Editing by William Mallard

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.