China will make substantial changes to its "dynamic-zero" COVID-19 policy in coming months, a former Chinese disease control official has told a conference, according to a recording heard by Reuters.
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, which hosted the conference, 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.
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.
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, and many believe China will begin significant easing only after the March parliamentary session.
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 of next year.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman 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.
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.