China faces its broader COVID-19 outbreak since the coronavirus first appeared there in late 2019, and the Delta variant spread to places that had been virus-free for months, including the original epicenter of Wuhan.
The Delta strain has overcome the country’s virus defenses, which are some of the most stringent in the world, reaching nearly half of China’s 32 provinces in just two weeks. While the total number of infections – more than 300 so far – is still less than the COVID resurgence elsewhere, the wide spread indicates that the variant is moving rapidly.
This is the biggest challenge to China’s strategy since the virus was first detected in Wuhan, the central Chinese city that saw the world’s first lethal outbreak. The country’s strict anti-virus measures, including massive testing as soon as a case appears, aggressive contact tracing, widespread use of quarantines, and targeted shutdowns, they have crushed more than 30 previous outbreaks in the past year.
However, the arrival of the more infectious Delta variant is testing even that approach. The new strain may be exploiting a decrease in masking and social distancing in some places, as much of the country has been COVID-free for months. That, coupled with increased travel for the summer holidays, created an environment in which Delta could establish itself.
China reported 99 infections on Monday, including 44 that tested positive but have no symptoms. Later that day, seven more people were found to be infected in Wuhan, plus another in Beijing. By number of cases, it is the largest outbreak since an outbreak in northern China’s Hebei province in January when 2,000 people were infected.
The wide spread is even more concerning, given the increase in cases in the highly protected capital and in Wuhan, whose virus-free status has been a source of pride in China. The seven new cases are the first since China brought its original wave under control by blocking the city of about 11 million and the surrounding province of Hubei.
Pang Xinghuo, deputy director of the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control, pleaded with visitors to the city who have traveled from high-risk areas within China or suspect they may have been in close contact with someone infected to inform authorities. . Authorities also urged residents to slow down their travels and stay in the city in the near future if possible.
“Cluster outbreaks have occurred one after another across the country and multiple cases have been reported in Beijing, leading to a critical phase in our response to the epidemic,” said Pang. “We cannot let a single strand of risk and hidden danger escape.”
The initial delta infection arrived in mid-July via an overseas flight from Moscow to the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing and spread to a group of airport cleaning personnel. In weeks, cases have also appeared as far away as South China’s Hainan Island, 1,900 kilometers (1,180 miles) from Nanjing.
China’s vaccination rate is close to 60 percent and is among the highest in the world, but It remains to be seen whether locally developed vaccines can slow the spread of Delta.
Most of those infected in Nanjing were immunized, and the vaccines, which have been found less effective than Messenger RNA injections in clinical trials, appear to provide protection, with only 4 percent of those infected in this current wave fighting a serious illness so far. Many of them have pre-existing conditions such as asthma, diabetes or high blood pressure, Guo Yanhong, an official with the National Health Commission, said at a briefing in Beijing on Saturday.
While all coronavirus vaccines are proving less effective against Delta, there is great concern that non-mRNA vaccines like the Chinese ones and the injection of AstraZeneca Plc are less capable of slowing down transmission.
State-owned Sinopharm said its inactivated COVID-19 injection, administered widely in China, is 68 percent effective against delta, citing a study in Sri Lanka. Sinovac Biotech Ltd., the other major Chinese supplier, said antibodies induced by its inactivated Covid vaccine can still neutralize the delta strain in laboratory studies, the state-run Global Times reported, without providing further details.
Delta is providing a reality check for the world, especially for countries that thought they were emerging from the pandemic through containment of the virus or high levels of vaccination.
Last week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reversed its previous position and said that fully vaccinated people should go back to wearing masks indoors where infections are increasing. Australia, which like China had managed to stamp out Covid with strict border restrictions, is fighting its own delta-driven resurgence, with major cities once again closed.
“Delta accounts for 80 percent of cases in the United States and they reinstated the mask requirement,” said Wang Huaqing, chief immunization expert at the Chinese CDC, in Saturday’s briefing. “That means that the spread of the delta is serious and personal protection cannot be reduced even with vaccination.”
Adding to the concern is a separate delta group in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou, where hospital and cleaning staff have been infected. Cases were also reported in the surrounding Henan province, where the ability to curb the spread of the virus may be weakened due to torrential rains and floods that destroyed infrastructure, killing 302 people and leaving 50 missing.
Residents of Nanjing, where the recent outbreak began, have been blocked. Also affected are those living in Zhangjiajie, a scenic area famous for its green mountain ranges, where a live outdoor performance a week ago with more than 3,000 spectators fueled the spread of the virus.
Nanjing and Zhangjiajie train ticket sales were suspended on Monday, Beijing Daily reported.
Officials in Beijing, which has detected six infections so far, vowed to cut transmission of the virus with “the fastest pace, the strictest measures and the most decisive action.”
The capital will tighten entry restrictions for those traveling from places currently fighting the outbreaks, and employees of government and state-owned companies have been banned from leaving the city.
Surveillance has already increased in many places, with security guards once again checking green codes in shopping malls and office buildings. Meanwhile, the queues are increasing at the city’s test sites.