Jan 12, 2021 08:18 PM

Zhang Wenhong: Hebei Outbreak Will Be Under Control in a Month

Zhang Wenhong. Photo: IC Photo
Zhang Wenhong. Photo: IC Photo

Zhang Wenhong is director of the infectious diseases department at Huashan Hospital in Shanghai.

The day I am writing this piece, I will get my second dose of the vaccine. Promoting vaccination is a personal choice and a global need.

As international and domestic vaccines gradually come to market, the curtain is gradually being raised on the global fight against the epidemic. The speed of vaccine advancement determines the future of humanity's showdown with the coronavirus.

The faster the vaccination, the more effectively the epidemic can be controlled, and the speed of mutation will have difficulty keeping up with the speed of disease prevention and control. If the spread of the epidemic cannot be controlled, the risk of new virus strains evading the vaccines increases. Vaccination is also a race against virus mutation.

Our team and the team of Chen Jian of CreditWise Technologies, also a senior advisor at Caixin Insight, have simulated the current vaccination situation in the U.K. and the U.S. They are using a simulation model based on network relationships for the actual situation the world is facing (see the Epidemic Index Weekly Report for details).

Each simulation node considered vaccine capacity, vaccine distribution policies, supply chain constraints, vaccination intentions, vaccine effectiveness, and basic regeneration numbers in an attempt to simulate the expected time for the index of person-to-person transmission — the so-called R number — to fall below the key threshold of 1.

But the current vaccination situation seems unfortunate, as the New York Times reported that only 2.8 million of the 20 million doses of vaccine distributed in the United States had been administered as of the last day of 2020. The actual number of vaccinations has only reached about 13% of the full population (of course this could include many reasons, such as cold weather and initial hesitation to vaccinate).

If this rate continues, the proportion of people vaccinated and naturally immunized within a year will only reach about 30% by the end of the year. This will certainly not be effective in controlling the epidemic. If vaccination efficiency can be increased from 13% to 25%, and if effective non-medical interventions — things like social distancing and hand washing — are implemented, the R number can be pushed below 1 by the end of September this year.

Therefore, in the short term, the efficiency of vaccination should be rapidly improved so that the explosive growth of the epidemic can be effectively controlled in the short term. Otherwise, we will face the pressure of medical crowding and the continued climb of new coronavirus-related deaths throughout this year.

Imperial College London published its predictions for the U.K. in September, in which it said the R number may climb to 2.3 and the new mutant strain may not be effectively contained until approximately September to November of this year, even with 80% of the U.K. population willing to get a vaccine.

The cost of this scenario would be tragic, with about 26.9% of the population infected by the end of the year. It is reassuring to note that the U.K. has introduced new epidemic prevention measures for London and Southeast England from Dec. 19. On Dec. 28, Imperial College released its weekly epidemic report which estimated that the R number in the U.K. had stabilized at around 1.3, suggesting that effective non-medical intervention policies alongside vaccination will be key to controlling the outbreak.

In China, we have the strongest non-medical intervention strategy (e.g., the most recent Hebei outbreak will undoubtedly be brought under complete control in about a month). In the face of the global pressure of a pandemic that will most likely not be effectively controlled by the end of this year, if we can maximize the promotion of safe and effective vaccination, we can gradually build an immune barrier against the coronavirus, which is an inevitable choice for our future.

If there is no vaccination today, there will be long lines for vaccination tomorrow. Vaccination will be the common rational choice globally.

The views and opinions expressed in this opinion section are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial positions of Caixin Media.

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