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Countries giving up “Covid Zero” strategy

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After adopting one of the world’s strictest approaches to trying to control the spread of Covid-19, New Zealand announced on Monday that the country would no longer pursue an approach that would attempt to eliminate all Covid cases.

This zero Covid strategy, also employed by the likes of China and Taiwan, involves strict lockdowns (even after the detection of just one or a handful of cases) and extensive testing, heavily controlled or closed borders, as well as robust contact tracing systems and quarantine mandates.

The move comes after a lockdown in the city of Auckland failed to stop the virus in the face of the more virulent delta variant. It is estimated to be 60% more transmissible than the alpha variant originally discovered in late 2020, and which itself usurped a previous, less infectious version of the virus.

New Zealand has been notoriously strict in its tackling of Covid; Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern put the entire country under a strict lockdown in August after a single suspected case of Covid caused by the delta variant — at that time the country’s first coronavirus case in six months — was reported in Auckland.

But on Monday, Ardern said that the city’s lockdown would be eased gradually and that the country’s strategy towards tackling Covid was changing.

“For this outbreak, it’s clear that long periods of heavy restrictions has not got us to zero cases,” Ardern said during a press conference. “But that is OK. Elimination was important because we didn’t have vaccines. Now we do, so we can begin to change the way we do things.”

Ardern said it was important that the country maintain strict controls, however, saying it still needed to “contain and control the virus as much as possible, while we make our transition from a place where we only use heavy restrictions to a place where we use vaccines in everyday public health measures.”

It’s the first time that New Zealand has publicly signaled a shift away from a zero Covid strategy, coming after its neighbor Australia also abandoned its zero tolerance, or “Covid zero” approach in early September, saying it had shifted to a position of “learning to live with” the virus.

Similarly to in New Zealand, Australia’s decision to abandon the strategy came after a strict lockdown in Melbourne railed to quell an outbreak there.

At the time, Victoria state’s Premier Daniel Andrews noted that “we have thrown everything at this, but it is now clear to us that we are not going to drive these numbers down, they are instead going to increase.”

Experts are not surprised by the shift in strategy, noting that the spread of the delta variant makes such approaches futile.

“It’s no surprise that New Zealand has abandoned its ‘zero covid’ strategy – the highly transmissible delta variant has changed the game and means that an elimination strategy is no longer viable,” Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick, told CNBC Monday.

“That doesn’t mean that NZ’s and Australia’s robust approach to managing the pandemic – strict border restrictions, quarantine measures and strong contact tracing – hasn’t been effective but continued heavy restrictions are damaging to individuals and society,” he said.

Zero tolerance policies will become harder as the rest of the world opens up, he added, but stressed that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t remain vigilant. “We need to stop the virus spreading and mutating by doing everything we can to support the global roll out of vaccines.”

Trying to completely suppress the spread of Covid-19 has often been questioned by experts, but in countries where vaccination rollouts have been slower, lockdowns have served to slow, if not eradicate, the spread of the virus.

Defending the Auckland lockdown Monday, Ardern said pursuing a zero Covid strategy had been the “right choice and the only choice” for Auckland while vaccination rates had remained low, with only 25% of Aucklanders fully vaccinated at the time.

Now, seven weeks later, she said that 52% of Aucklanders were fully vaccinated, with 84% having had one dose. Clinical data shows that full vaccination against Covid-19 is highly effective at protecting people against severe Covid infection, hospitalization and death.

Zero Covid strategies remain in place in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, however, with none of them showing signs of relinquishing it just yet. Other Asian economies that have adopted similar approaches include Macau, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam.

The data shows that this strategy has helped keep cases and deaths in the region much lower than in Europe and the U.S. The latter has seen the highest death toll from Covid in the world, with over 703,000 deaths.

On Monday, Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center said there had been zero new local cases of Covid-19 and five imported ones, marking the fourth consecutive day without a local infection.


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