COVID-19 infections were exploding in China well before the government's decision to abandon its strict "zero-COVID" policy, a World Health Organization director said on Wednesday, quashing suggestions that the sudden reversal caused a spike in cases.
The comments by the WHO's emergencies director Mike Ryan came as he warned of the need to ramp up vaccinations in the world's No. 2 economy.
Speaking at a briefing with media, he said the virus was spreading "intensively" in the nation long before the lifting of restrictions.
"There's a narrative at the moment that China lifted the restrictions and all of a sudden the disease is out of control," he said.
"The disease was spreading intensively because I believe the control measures in themselves were not stopping the disease. And I believe China decided strategically that was not the best option anymore."
The challenge for China in getting the virus under control is ensuring an adequate number of people are vaccinated, he said.
The elation in China that met the changes in policy allowing people to live with the virus has quickly faded amid mounting concerns about surging infections because the population lacks "herd immunity" and has low vaccination rates among the elderly.
Earlier in the briefing, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was “hopeful” that the pandemic, which has killed more than 6.6 million people since it emerged in Wuhan, China three years ago, will no longer be considered a global emergency sometime next year.
"It’s a very hard thing to say three years into a pandemic that there are still significant gaps," said Ryan noting that many countries have dismantled their testing and surveillance strategies which are critical for tracing the virus.
"We have to be really careful," he said.