GENEVA (AP) – The head of the World Health Organization said China’s extreme approach to containing the coronavirus is unsustainable due to the highly infectious nature of the Omicron variant, but it is up to each country to decide what policies to pursue.

At a media briefing on Tuesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described China’s zero-COVID strategy as “unsustainable” after similar statements drew sharp criticism from China last week.

“We know the virus better and have better tools, including vaccines, so dealing with the virus should be different than when the pandemic started,” Tedros said. He added that the virus has changed significantly since it was first identified in Wuhan in late 2019, when China largely halted its spread with lockdowns.

Tedros said the WHO has repeatedly advised Chinese officials on their recommended COVID containment strategies, but “in terms of their policy choices, it’s up to each country to make those choices.”

China’s reckless and often chaotic implementation of zero-COVID has sparked significant resentment and food shortages in Shanghai, where some residents have been under quarantine for six weeks.

dr Michael Ryan, WHO’s chief of emergencies, said the agency has acknowledged that China has been in a difficult situation recently with COVID-19 and praised the authorities for keeping the number of deaths at a very low level had.

“We understand why China’s first response was to try to suppress infections to the maximum level, (but) this strategy is not sustainable and other elements of the strategic response need to be strengthened,” he said. Ryan added that vaccination efforts should continue, stressing that “a pure suppression strategy is not a sustainable way for any country to end the pandemic.”

WHO chief Tedros also said the agency is trying to persuade North Korea and Eritrea to start COVID-19 vaccination.

“The WHO is deeply concerned about the risk of further spread in (North Korea),” Tedros said, noting that the population is unvaccinated and there are worrying numbers of people with underlying conditions that put them at risk of serious diseases.

Tedros said the WHO has asked North Korea to share more data on the outbreak there, but has not received a response so far. North Korea acknowledged an outbreak for the first time just last week and now says more than 1.7 million people have contracted the fever. It doesn’t have enough testing material to confirm large numbers of COVID-19 cases, but outside experts believe most fever cases are caused by the coronavirus.

He said the WHO has offered to send vaccines, medicines, tests and technical assistance to both North Korea and Eritrea, but none of the countries’ leaders have responded so far.

Ryan said any uncontrolled transmission in countries like North Korea and Eritrea could encourage the emergence of new variants, but WHO is powerless when countries don’t take their help.


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