As reports emerged that the strict lockdown of Shanghai was not warranted, the head of the World Health Organization on Tuesday said China's zero-tolerance COVID-19 policy is not sustainable.

Since the Omicron variant is known to be less severe than other known Covid variants, the comments by the U.N. agency on a government's handling of the pandemic have come as rare.

"We don't think that it is sustainable considering the behaviour of the virus and what we now anticipate in the future," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a media briefing.

world health organisation
world health organisation

"We have discussed this issue with Chinese experts. And we indicated that the approach will not be sustainable... I think a shift would be very important."

He said increased knowledge about the virus and better tools to combat it also suggested it was time for a change of strategy, hinting at zero-Covid policy was not required.

The comments come after China unleashed tough measures and threatened action against critics to its strict and prolonged lockdowns, which have cascaded on the world's second-largest economy and the impact on multinationals based out of Shanghai. Many firms have reported that they have been "Shanghaied" after the lockdown of Shanghai port, the largest in the world.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
WHO Chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Speaking after Tedros, WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan said the impact of a "zero-COVID" policy on human rights also needs to be taken into consideration.

"We have always said as WHO that we need to balance the control measures against the impact they have on society, the impact they have on the economy, and that's not always an easy calibration," said Ryan.

He also noted that China has registered 15,000 deaths since the virus first emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019 - a relatively low number compared with nearly 1 million in the United States, more than 664,000 in Brazil and over 524,000 in India.

With that in mind, it is understandable, Ryan said, that the world's most populous country would want to take tough measures to curb coronavirus contagion.

Still, China's zero-COVID policy has drawn criticism ranging from scientists to its own citizens, leading to a cycle of lockdowns of many millions of people, anguish and anger. Most other nations that shared its approach initially have now at least begun a transition to strategies to live with the virus.

The continued outbreaks also underscore how difficult it is to stop the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Had Omicron? You're unlikely to catch its rising variant

Under zero-COVID, authorities lock down large population areas to stamp out viral spread in response to any coronavirus outbreak, even if just a small number of people test positive.

Shanghai's measures have been particularly strict, with residents allowed out of compounds only for exceptional reasons, such as a medical emergency. Many are not even allowed out of their front doors to mingle with neighbours.

Its quarantine policy has also been criticised for separating children from parents and putting asymptomatic cases among those with symptoms.

Highlighting the far-reaching impact of prolonged lockdowns on global manufacturing and supplies of critical goods, General Electric's (GE.N) healthcare unit outlined on Tuesday the drastic measures it has taken to deal with shortages of dye used for medical scans and tests in the United States caused by the suspension of its Shanghai factory.

(With inputs from agencies)