The United States is monitoring for new coronavirus variants as it braces for a potential outbreak of COVID-19 infections following Beijing’s easing of strict controls that kept the pandemic at bay in China.

“We have a very robust surveillance program that we use for travelers as people come in, in terms of identifying people who are infected, tracking variants,” Ashish Jha, White House coronavirus response coordinator, told VOA during a briefing with reporters on Thursday. “And if there are new variants that emerge, I’m confident that we will be able to identify them.”

Jha said the monitoring mechanism includes testing wastewater in the U.S. and through partners abroad.

China changes its approach

On Wednesday, Beijing announced major changes to its national pandemic response, moving away from its strict zero-COVID approach, which relied heavily on lockdowns and prompted protests across the country. The new guidelines no longer mandate health QR codes to enter public places and allow patients with mild cases to quarantine at home instead of in crowded government facilities.

A major COVID-19 outbreak in China would have unpredictable effects on the virus, said Xi Chen, Yale University professor of public health.

“The world’s most populous country includes a large number of immunocompromised people who can harbor the virus for months,” he told VOA. 

Those conditions, he said, “may produce variants of concern.”

However, Chen noted there may be a reduced risk of new variants spinning out of a Chinese outbreak.

“China has stuck with zero-COVID so long that its population has, by and large, never encountered omicron subvariants; people’s immune systems remain trained almost exclusively on the original version of the coronavirus, raising only defenses that currently circulating strains can easily get around,” he said. “It’s possible that there will be less pressure for the virus to evolve to evade immunity further.”

The World Health Organization has raised concerns that China’s 1.4 billion citizens are not adequately vaccinated, particularly its elderly and vulnerable populations.

Beijing has ramped up its immunization efforts, on average more than 1 million shots each day. But with holiday travel coming and the time needed to build up immunity after vaccinations, the window is narrowing, Chen said.

“Perhaps the coming two weeks will be the last opportunity to avoid accelerated virus transmissions throughout China.”

As it braced for new infections, China began selling Paxlovid, an oral COVID-19 treatment made by American company Pfizer this week.

Jha said that the deal was reached without the administration’s involvement but said that the U.S. offered to help China with vaccinations stands.

“We have been the largest donor of vaccines in the world, almost 700 million doses,” he said. “We stand ready to help any country that needs help.”

Winter preparedness plan

On Thursday, the White House issued what it is calling its COVID-⁠19 Winter Preparedness Plan.

“We don’t want this winter to look like last winter or the winter before,” Jha said.

In a statement, the White House said that while COVID-19 “is not the disruptive force it once was, the virus continues to evolve,” and the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows new cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all up in recent days.

The White House said in addition to free testing sites that already exist, beginning Thursday, all U.S. households can order a total of four at-home COVID-19 tests that will be mailed directly to them free. Free at-home tests also will be made available at government-assisted rental housing properties serving seniors and food banks.

The administration also is outlining to all governors the actions they should take to prepare for increased cases and hospitalizations expected during the winter.

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press.

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