The backstory: Since the beginning of the pandemic, China has had one of the world's strictest approaches to COVID – something often referred to as its zero-COVID stance. Using border closures, lockdowns, mandatory quarantines and other curbs, China has battled COVID outbreaks rather than living with the virus.
More recently: China has been pivoting away from its zero-COVID stance even though vaccine coverage, especially among the elderly, still isn't where the government wants it to be. With that, COVID cases are starting to ramp up. The health system isn't prepared for the surge in cases, and hospitals are being overwhelmed by patients. Medicine and blood shortages have also begun affecting cities. Beijing has said that since it ended mandatory mass testing, it's also become difficult to track cases and the infection rate for asymptomatic people.
The development: China has over a billion residents. So, each new infection is another chance for the virus to mutate. Experts say that with a partially immune population like this, the virus has a lot of opportunities to change. Scientists think that the current Chinese COVID infection uptick is spurred by the BF.7 subvariant, which is highly contagious and good at evading immunity. Other omicron variants are also likely circulating all over the country. So, experts are worried that a brand-new variant could spring up in the current outbreak and spread outside of the region.
"China has a population that is very large and there's limited immunity. And that seems to be the setting in which we may see an explosion of a new variant," said Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, who works in infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University.
Last week, China's National Health Commission said that it's become "impossible to accurately grasp the actual number of asymptomatic infected persons" across the country, saying that it's no longer publishing daily data on asymptomatic infections.
"There will certainly be more omicron subvariants developing in China in the coming days, weeks and months, but what the world must anticipate in order to recognize it early and take rapid action is a completely new variant of concern," said Daniel Lucey, a fellow at the Infectious Diseases Society of America and professor at Dartmouth University's Geisel School of Medicine. "It could be more contagious, more deadly, or evade drugs, vaccines and detection from existing diagnostics."