China, which claimed to have contained coronavirus that first emerged in Wuhan, has gone back to imposing mass testing and widespread travel restrictions in some areas. The country on Friday reported its highest daily count as authorities struggled to clamp down on flare-ups with entry of the more transmissible delta variant in its territories.
The government clampdown on movements has, however, caused worry as economists are concerned that it could hurt the economy, which became the only major economy to grow last year. “Tough restrictions on movement and travel already in place will likely bring the desired results. But the delta variant is a particularly slippery little critter, and the concern for us, and we imagine, many others, is how quickly this will occur, and at what economic cost in the meantime,” Robert Carnell, regional head of Asia-Pacific research at Dutch bank ING, said in a note.
From Zero Covid to Back-to-Square-One
The country of 1.4 billion people had eradicated the virus so quickly that it was one of the first in the world to open up in spring last year. People removed their masks and gathered for pool parties.
That ‘zero Covid’ model is now looking increasingly fragile in a world that passed a grim milestone on Wednesday: the 200 millionth recorded case of infection. China is facing its biggest challenge since the virus first erupted in the Chinese city of Wuhan last year.
Chinese officials have acknowledged that curbing this outbreak will be much harder than the others, owing to the fast and asymptomatic spread of the variant.
While the number of cases are still relatively low compared to the United States and elsewhere, these new outbreaks — happening in cities such as Nanjing, Wuhan, Yangzhou and Zhangjiajie — are showcasing the limitations of China’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid.
What’s China Doing Now?
State media Xinhua News Agency reported that authorities have urged people to limit travel and avoid gatherings, as well as suspended some flights, trains and long-distance bus services.
The capital of Beijing imposed strict entry and exit controls on Sunday and is said to be at a “critical stage” of epidemic control after cases rose late July for the first time in months, Xinhua reported.
Wuhan will test all its residents for Covid new cases emerged, the news agency said. As of July 20, more than 17 million doses of Covid vaccines have been administered in Wuhan, and the vaccination rate of those 18 years and above hit 77.63%, according to the Wuhan municipal health commission.
How Did Delta Variant Enter China?
It all began from a Air China Flight CA910 that touched down at the Chinese city of Nanjing on July 10. One of those people travelling from Moscow had the Delta variant of Covid-19. After they left the plane, staff from the Nanjing Lukou airport went in to pick up their rubbish.
Reports quoting Chinese officials say that when those cleaners exited the aircraft they brought the virus along with them to the outside world – sparking what has now become China’s widest outbreak since Wuhan.
Moscow Flight Not the Only Reason for Spread
Even before Nanjing, there were several smaller outbreaks in Guangdong and along the borders with Russia and Myanmar.
Mask-wearing is becoming a rare sight, visibly much less than at the start of the pandemic. Mass gatherings too have become the norm again. A theatre performance at the tourist destination of Zhangjiajie, in Hunan province, attended by around 2,000 people has been identified as a potential super-spreader event in the current outbreak.
State media have also pointed out “glaring loopholes” at Nanjing airport. Officials believe the plane cleaners did not follow Covid protection protocols, and admitted that the flight was allowed to land even though it had been barred from flying multiple times for carrying Covid-positive passengers.
The Next Step for China
Some public health experts in the country say it is time for China to rethink its Covid strategy. In a recent essay, Zhang Wenhong, who advises the Chinese government on dealing with Covid-19, floated the idea of following a model similar to that of Israel and Britain, in which vaccination rates are high and people are willing to live with infections.
For now, China has stuck to the same strict playbook. Across the country, the government has instructed people not to travel unless necessary. In the cities of Zhangjiajie and Zhuzhou, 5.4 million people have been barred from leaving their homes. Roughly 13 million residents in the city of Zhengzhou, the site of deadly floods in July, had to stand in line for virus testing.
In Nanjing, where the recent delta cases first appeared, millions of residents have had to participate in four rounds of testing.
Is China’s Vaccine Effective?
For its vaccination drive, China has largely relied on inactivated Covid-19 vaccines from private firm Sinovac and state-owned manufacturer Sinopharm. Country’s top epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan said recently that the vaccines are 100% effective against the Delta variant in preventing severe disease but did not provide data to back up the claims.
China has now delivered over 1.7 billion vaccine shots domestically, nearly five times as many as the US. The total is enough to fully vaccinate 60% of China’s 1.4 billion citizens, and vaccine coverage of adults in major urban centers like Beijing and Shanghai is over 91% and 85%, respectively.
A report in Fortune quoted Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, as saying that China’s continued reliance on aggressive pandemic prevention measures are a “function of China’s lack of confidence in its own vaccines”.
The inactivated vaccines are likely preventing some severe disease and death from the Delta variant, Huang says, but their efficacy has likely waned against Delta given that even the most effective mRNA vaccines are proving less protective against mild infections of the strain.
Malaysia announced in mid-July that it would stop using Sinovac’s vaccine in its campaign amid concerns about its efficacy, while governments like Indonesia and Thailand have reportedly appeared to lose confidence in the jabs, too. The Covid deaths of 131 health care workers in Indonesia, most of whom received Sinovac jabs, prompted medical professionals last month to question the efficacy of the vaccine.
Amid Lab Leak Theory, China’s New Measures
According to South China Morning Post, Beijing is also updating its lab animal testing laws as it tightens up on animal use in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and allegations that the pathogen leaked from a laboratory.
The draft proposes a new chapter on “safety management” and new sections on vehicles used to transport lab animals and environmental controls in the facilities.
“The bodies and tissues of animals used in experiments should be disposed of safely. Animals used in experiments cannot go back on the market. The treatment process needs to be fully traceable,” the report quoted the draft.
“Units and individuals engaged in the use of experimental animals shall…conduct regular quality inspections on the animals and the facilities. “The operational process and testing data should be fully and accurately recorded and traceable.”
While the existing regulations include guidelines on reporting infectious disease outbreaks to public health and animal quarantine departments, the new regulation adds “local science and technology authorities” to the departments that have to be notified if any disease transmissible to humans is found in labs, the report stated.
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