Taiwanese army soldiers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant on the road in the wake of coronavirus outbreak | File Photo: PTI

Taiwan’s lesson for the world: Zero COVID concept just doesn’t work

The Taiwan example shows that a strict containment strategy to fully curb COVID transmission is neither possible nor sustainable, an expert has said

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Taiwan, similar to several other Asian nations, adopted a COVID containment strategy that first seemed to work impressively well. There, as in Hong Kong and Singapore, strict measures were taken to stem the spread of the disease by completely curbing various activities and movement.

However, there has been a COVID outbreak in recent days in Taiwan, which has led health experts to believe that the strategy is far from fool-proof.  A containment strategy working toward zero local transmission is probably non-sustainable in the long term, CNBC said, quoting Benjamin Cowling, professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health.

With a population of about 24 million, Taiwan had reported over 8,500 COVID cases and 124 deaths as on May 31, per official data.

‘Imported’ cases

Until recently, thanks to strict containment measures, Taiwan did have very few COVID cases, said the CNBC report. The few that were reported were mostly ‘imported’. Hence, the people could carry on with normal lives.

However, that left them highly ‘susceptible’ to more contagious and virulent coronavirus variants. Since very few had been infected, very few had antibodies, too. Also, since the spread was negligible, the vaccination effort has been rather tepid, too.

“Probably less than 1% of their population have had natural infection and therefore natural immunity, and less than 1% have been vaccinated — so they’re almost completely susceptible,” Cowling told CNBC.

“It’s a warning to other parts of Asia that are also trying this elimination strategy: it’s not necessarily sustainable in the long term,” he said.

Western lessons

The countries in the West, which took a severe hit from COVID last year, had implemented more relaxed lockdown norms. With a robust vaccination programme, they have mostly fought back the pandemic better this year. This, along with rapid testing, is now seen to be a more sustainable way of containing COVID.

Cowling noted in the CNBC article that Taiwan’s tepid vaccination programme is at least partly due to political issues. While it has sourced vaccines from AstraZeneca and Moderna, it has accused China of preventing it from forging a similar tie-up with BioNTech.

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