China's top Covid official has softened his tone on the severity of the coronavirus and signaled a possible relaxing of the country's strict zero-tolerance approach to the virus, after nationwide protests calling for an end to lockdowns and greater political freedom.
Anger over China's zero-Covid policy -- which involves mass lockdowns, constant testing and quarantines even for people who are not infected -- has sparked protests in major cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
But while authorities have called for a "crackdown" in the wake of the demonstrations, they have also begun hinting that a relaxation of the hardline virus strategy could be in the works.
Speaking at the National Health Commission Wednesday, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said the Omicron variant was weakening and vaccination rates were improving, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Sun said this "new situation" required "new tasks".
She made no mention of the zero-Covid policy in her latest remarks, suggesting an approach that has disrupted the economy and daily life might soon be relaxed.
The comments came as the southern manufacturing-hub Guangzhou -- the site of dramatic Tuesday night clashes between police and protesters -- said it had partially lifted a weeks-long lockdown, despite seeing record virus cases.
Officials on Wednesday eased restrictions to varying degrees in all of the city's 11 districts, including Haizhu, where recent protests took place.
With the exception of a number of designated "high-risk" neighborhoods, the Guangzhou health commission said, "the rest will be managed as low-risk areas."
The central city of Chongqing also said Wednesday close contacts of Covid cases who met certain conditions would be allowed to quarantine at home -- a departure from rules that required them to be sent to central isolation facilities.
Sun's remarks -- as well as relaxations of rules by local authorities -- "could signal that China is beginning to consider the end of its stringent zero-Covid policy," analysts said.
"We believe that Chinese authorities are shifting to a 'living with Covid' stance, as reflected in new rules that allow people to do 'home isolation' instead of being ferried away to quarantine facilities," ANZ Research analysts said in a note.
Expectations have grown around the world that China, while still trying to contain infections, could look to re-open at some point next year once it achieves better vaccination rates among its elderly.
China's health authority said on Wednesday that it would aim to improve accessibility and launch targeted programs in nursing homes and leisure facilities as part of a new vaccination drive among the over-60s.
It also pledged to make renewed efforts to publicize the benefits of vaccination, and persuading the old and vulnerable that it is both safe and effective could be the most challenging part of the campaign.