For much of the past century, a strategy known as elimination was the gold standard for dealing with deadly new viruses. But China’s abrupt reversal of its "zero-COVID" policy, which took it to an extreme, has cast doubts over the approach and left a gaping hole in the world’s game plan for the next pandemic.

Even outside China, elimination measures such as stay-at-home orders proved politically unpopular and difficult to carry out. With some medical experts doubting whether airborne respiratory pathogens can be suppressed, global public health officials are now without a consensus on how best to contain new infectious diseases.

Early in the pandemic, proponents argued the strategy was morally, scientifically and economically superior to so-called mitigation approaches, such as slowing the spread of disease through physical distancing and limiting social gatherings or letting the virus loose among the young while protecting more vulnerable members of the population.