China imposes restrictions as Delta variant reaches nearly half the country

In just two weeks, confirmed cases - people infected and sickened by the virus - have grown to more than 500.
In just two weeks, confirmed cases - people infected and sickened by the virus - have grown to more than 500.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - China imposed new travel and movement restrictions amid a Delta-driven outbreak that has grown to more than 500 symptomatic cases scattered across half the country.

This comes as the government stuck to its aggressive containment playbook rather than rely on the high vaccination level of 61 per cent.

Public transport and taxi services were curtailed in 144 of the worst-hit areas nationwide, while officials curbed train service and subway usage in Beijing, where three new cases were reported on Wednesday (Aug 4).

Officials reported on Thursday 94 new local infections, including 32 asymptomatic infections, adding to the country's broadest Covid-19 threat since the pathogen first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019.

Though 61 per cent of the population has been vaccinated - one of the highest rates in the world among big countries - China has stuck to its tried-and-tested regime of mass testing and targeted lockdowns that has crushed more than 30 previous flareups, with no differentiation for inoculated people.

While case numbers are still too low to be a test of whether China's home-grown vaccines successfully prevent serious illness and death against the Delta strain, the government is unwilling to take the chance that they will falter, with local officials exhorting the population to endure the disruption.

"Vaccination is not equal to entering a safe or carrying a talisman," said Beijing's Covid-19 response task force deputy director Qi Jinli. "Personal protective measures still cannot be relaxed and vaccination cannot replace containment measures. Let's hold on until we score the ultimate victory against the outbreak."

China's uncompromising approach is increasingly an outlier as major western economies largely rely on vaccination to keep hospitalisations and fatalities low amid resurgent outbreaks.

The Chinese vaccine makers have not released data from broad-based studies on how well their shots perform against the delta strain, but experts say their effectiveness - already lower than the western messenger RNA vaccines to start with - will be even less potent against the highly infectious variant.

"The problem for China is that its vaccines are likely to lose more effectiveness against the Delta variant," said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Sam Fazeli. "This means that to contain the Delta variant, China would have to use more lockdowns, which will have broader economic consequences."

In just two weeks, confirmed cases - people infected and sickened by the virus - have grown to more than 500.

The infections can be traced back to three cluster areas in China: an outbreak among airport cleaning staff in eastern city Nanjing, another found at a hospital treating Covid-19 patients in Zhengzhou, and sporadic cases detected in Yunnan, the province bordering Myanmar.

Delta has spread to Wuhan, which has been virus-free since China contained the initial outbreak there early last year. The city has detected 12 cases as of Aug 3 and is currently testing its entire population of 12 million people.

The Chinese authorities urged people to cancel business trips and vacations, while some colleges around the country have asked students, especially those from high-risk areas, to delay their return to school for the new semester.