China Blames Omicron's Mild Symptoms for Recent COVID Surge

Chinese health officials have pointed to the mild symptoms of the Omicron variant as well as a high number of asymptomatic cases as the cause for a recent surge in COVID-19 numbers in the country.

Coronavirus cases in China—where the virus first originated—have increased in recent weeks. On January 13, the seven-day average of daily cases was 202. On March 13, the seven-day average had skyrocketed to 17,944, an increase of over 8,700 percent, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

In a report in the Global Times, a Chinese state-run media outlet, Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, pointed to the transmission of the Omicron variant—which can often be asymptomatic or milder than previous variants—for the surge.

The variant accounts for about 80 percent of recent cases in China, the outlet reported. The BA.2 and BA.1.1 sub-variants are most common in the country.

The BA.2 sub-variant, which has become dominant in some parts of the world, has the ability to reinfect people who already had the original Omicron variant, which caused a major outbreak in cases in the United States through the winter.

Though many cases remained milder than the Delta variant, tens of thousands of people still died during the outbreak and many hospitals again became overwhelmed with a high number of patients.

Cases peaked in China on March 3, when 57,121 new cases were reported, according to Johns Hopkins.

China has also reported among the world's highest vaccination rates, with more than 88 percent of the total population being fully vaccinated, according to the Johns Hopkins data. In comparison, according to Johns Hopkins, 66 percent of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated.

Since the first outbreak in Wuhan, China has taken a hardline approach regarding COVID. The "zero COVID" approach entails quickly containing outbreaks, often using lockdowns.

The latest outbreak forced two major cities, Changchun and Shenzhen, which are home to a combined 17 million people, into lockdown. The outbreak could also have a far-reaching economic impact, as manufacturers have warned about potential shipping delays as they comply with the policies, Reuters reported.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who served as the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration during the Trump administration, told CNBC Monday that China could be "very vulnerable to this new variant."

"This is a much more contagious variant, it's going to be harder to control, and they don't have a population that has natural immunity," he said during an interview.

China's outbreak comes as some other countries also report an increasing number of cases. Many European countries are reporting some of their highest numbers to date. On Sunday, Germany reported 176,358 new cases—a jump from 66,799 new cases two months earlier. South Korea on Monday reported 351,481 new cases—the highest number since the start of the pandemic.

Omicron blamed for China's coronavirus outbreak
As China deals with its largest coronavirus outbreak, its chief epidemiologist pointed to the mild symptoms of the Omicron variant as the surge’s cause. Above, a woman receives a COVID-19 test in Beijing Tuesday. NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images