What we know about viruses says that they mutate faster when a virus has a huge pool of infected hosts where the virus is busy replicating away.
From that perspective, the collapse of China’s 0-Covid containment policy has turned the country into a huge 1.5-billion-person petri dish. With infections climbing rapidly, the coronavirus has plenty of opportunity to mutate into new variants.
At this point, it’s clear that China’s new surge of infection is going to be a disaster for China. Experts from outside China put the likely death toll at 1 million or more, and the country’s healthcare system is reeling toward a complete breakdown.
This isn’t good news for the Chinese economy or China stocks and my advice is to sell stocks with exposure to China. In the last few days, I’ve sold MGM Resorts International (MGM) and Volkswagen (VWAPY) out of my online portfolios.
But how big a danger does the Covid outbreak in China pose to the rest of the world?
We already know that the Covid virus is mutating like crazy in China. Over the past three months, China has detected over 130 variants of the Omicron variant, including BF.7, a variant incredibly adept at evading immunity and believed to be behind the current surge in infections. Xu Wenbo, head of the National Institute for Viral Disease Control and Prevention, confirmed last week that 50 of the 130 Omicron versions found in China had resulted in outbreaks.
But what we don’t know is very much about how much more infectious these new variants are or if they result in a more serious case of Covid than existing variants. For that, it would sure help to have good data from China about the genetics of the new variants. And that’s something that the Chinese just haven’t provided.
That information is important because these new variants will behave very differently in a target-rich environment such as China where, because of the 0-Covid policy, a relatively small percentage of the population has been exposed to the virus and has developed any natural immunity. In addition actual–as opposed to official–vaccination rates are relatively low, especially among the elderly and many of those vaccinations have been with relatively ineffective Chinese-developed vaccines rather than with the RNA vaccines used in the United States and much of the rest of the developed world.
The bad news in that is that new variants are likely to burn through China’s population like wildfire across a prairie.
The good news is that viruses are less likely to develop mutations that increase resistance to existing vaccines when they aren’t exposed to an environment where a large number of hosts have natural or vaccine immunity. Why would they? The viruses don’t gain a big evolutionary boost from developing work around to vaccines that they’re never going to see.
Tom Wenseleers, an evolutionary biologist at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, told the Guardian that while better genetic surveillance was important, he was not particularly concerned about the possibility of new variants emerging in China, given that the main driver for changes to the virus is the shift in the immune landscape resulting from exposure to different naturally circulating variants and vaccination. Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Bern and the University of Geneva in Switzerland, told the Guardian that most recent variants to appear have adapted to dodge immunity. “In China, however, since the level of immunity is quite low, we don’t expect there to be much pressure on the virus to evolve around it– it simply doesn’t have to.
Let’s hope–because it’s already quite clear that whatever is circulating in China now will soon be circulating in the rest of the world. For example, a recent test in Milan of passengers on a flight from China showed that 50% were infected with Covid.
The U.S. government is, meanwhile, rushing to beef up programs of genetic surveillance designed to track the emergence and spread of new variants in the United States.