SHANGHAI - China will make substantial changes to its "dynamic-zero" COVID-19 policy in coming months, a former Chinese disease control official told a conference hosted by Citi on Friday, according to a recording of the session heard by Reuters.
Separately, three sources familiar with the matter said China may soon further shorten quarantine requirements for inbound travellers.
Zeng Guang, former chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention who has remained outspoken on China's COVID fight, said the conditions for China opening up were "accumulating", citing new vaccines and progress the country had made in antiviral drug research.
Asked by Citi chief China economist Yu Xiangrong if China would open up after its annual meeting of parliament that traditionally takes place in early March, he said many new policies would be introduced in the next five to six months, without indicating the basis for that information.
"The situation is changing now and China's 'dynamic zero' will also undergo major changes. Substantive changes will happen soon," he said, according to the recording of the session, which was titled "China's Exit Strategy from Zero-COVID".
Citi declined to comment on Zeng's remarks. Zeng and Yu did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Zeng's remarks add impetus to recent investor hopes China will ease some of the strict measures that have made it a global outlier and inflicted deep damage to the world's second-largest economy.
Public health experts have warned that reversing China's rigid COVID regime would require a clear timeline and strategy for booster shots in a nation of 1.4 billion people with little natural immunity, and many believe China will begin significant easing only after the March parliamentary session.
This week's optimism defies news of rising infections and widespread COVID-related disruptions in China, including the postponement on Friday of the Guangzhou auto show that had been planned for later this month.
Chinese health authorities will hold a press conference at 3 p.m. (0700 GMT) on Saturday on COVID-19 prevention, according to a notice that said officials from the National Bureau of Disease Control and Prevention would attend. No other details were immediately available.
Still, China has continued to fine-tune its COVID approach and may soon shorten COVID-19 quarantine requirements for inbound travellers from the current 10 days to seven or eight days, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters on Friday.
Under the new rule, arrivals would need to spend five days in a quarantine facility and a further two or three days at home, one of the sources said, compared with the current requirement of seven days in a facility, typically a hotel, and a further three days under home monitoring.
China's National Health Commission did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.
Such a move would follow China's decision in June to slash quarantine time for inbound travellers by half.
Also on Friday, Bloomberg News reported that China was working on plans to scrap a system that penalises airlines for bringing COVID-positive passengers into the country, citing people familiar with the matter, saying the effort was a sign authorities were looking for ways to ease the impact of its COVID policies.
Chinese airlines on average flew 145 international flights a day in October, up 21.9% from September, according to aviation data provider Variflight. Still, international capacity to and from China is only at 7.3% of 2019 levels, based on data from industry information providers CAPA and OAG.
LOCKDOWNS AND PROTESTS
Authorities on Friday reported 3,871 new locally transmitted infections for the previous day, a tiny number by global standards but the most in China since early May.
Zeng was part of a top team at China's National Health Commission when the virus started to spread from the central Chinese city of Wuhan to other parts of China in 2020.
He has previously urged against using excessive measures to fight COVID that risk exhausting people, and in March said that China would look for a route to "flexible and controllable opening up".
While most of the world has largely done away with virus curbs, China has resolutely stuck to a zero-tolerance approach that reacts to even single cases with lockdowns and mass testing. Those measures have roiled the economy and are increasingly frustrating the public.
Markets surged this week on hopes that China would relax its approach after rumours - based on an unverified note that circulated on social media - indicated China was planning a reopening from strict COVID curbs in March next year.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said at the time he was unaware of the situation. On Wednesday, the country's National Health Commission said the nation should unwaveringly stick to zero-COVID.
Wuhan is again making COVID-related headlines in China after imposing an array of temporary lockdowns and restrictions when dozens of new cases were reported over the past week.
Videos showing rowdy protests inside a compound in Wuhan's Hanyang district on Thursday night were shared on social media on Friday. Reuters could not immediately verify them.
Angry residents in the videos were seen smashing COVID disaster relief tents and calling for an end to their lockdown, with crowds shouting: "Give us freedom, give us freedom!"
(Reporting by Beijing and Shanghai Newsrooms; Writing by Brenda Goh and Tony Munroe; Editing by Alex Richardson, Edmund Klamann and Mark Potter)