BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) – China is racing to control a new coronavirus outbreak in Beijing that has neared 80 infections in just four days, posing the biggest test of the country’s containment strategy since the disease first emerged in Wuhan.
The authorities on Monday (June 15) announced 49 new Covid-19 cases nationwide, 36 linked to Beijing’s biggest fruit and vegetable market, Xinfadi, in Fengtai district.
City officials are fanning out across housing compounds, knocking on doors to ask residents if they have been to or had contact with anyone who has visited the market.
In Xicheng district, where the first case from the new cluster was found, people lined up late at night at a sports stadium to get tested.
Cases have spread to a second market, Yuquandong, in Haidian district. The market has reported infections from individuals who had been to Xinfadi.
As of Monday, more than 20 residential compounds across Beijing had been locked down. Security checks were ramped up elsewhere in the capital. Some firms told their staff to work from home, and the reopening of elementary schools for first to third-graders was delayed.
Beijing has entered “an extraordinary period” and is now “operating in wartime mode”, the city authorities said on Monday.
“The risk of virus spread is very high, and resolute and decisive measures are needed to prevent further spread,” Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan said on Sunday.
A NEW WAVE?
The abrupt resurgence of cases in the capital of more than 20 million people threatens to disrupt the hard-won normalisation of everyday life after China quelled its first epidemic months ago.
The outbreak in Beijing – China’s cultural and political centre where its business elites and political leadership reside – could be a reckoning for the Asian giant’s strategy of aggressive virus control.
While China has contained its previous outbreaks through strict lockdowns, it has until now never had a significant flare-up in a major city.
There are signs of hesitation to impose the same costly measures it has used elsewhere: while transport links were cut off quickly in the north-eastern provinces when a new cluster emerged last month, Beijing’s domestic flights and train services were still running without interruption on Monday.
But with new cases likely to grow as mass testing gets underway, an escalation of restrictions in the capital could happen quickly.
“One possibility is that further infections will be identified across the city in the coming days, and a city-wide lockdown will be implemented for a few weeks,” said Professor Ben Cowling, division head of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Hong Kong.
“Lockdowns in China can be very effective because of the infrastructure for restricting people from leaving their homes but at the same time ensuring that they have sufficient food and other essentials.”
The new outbreak is re-igniting fears that the pandemic is nowhere close to burning out. Infections in the Japanese capital of Tokyo and South Korea’s Seoul are also on the rise, while US states like Florida are still reporting record case growth.
FROZEN FOOD FEARS
Beijing – which had gone 55 days during which its only new infections were citizens returning from abroad – has reported a total of 79 cases since last Thursday.
The first case in the new outbreak surfaced that same day after a man surnamed Tang, 52, was confirmed to have the coronavirus. The following day, the authorities reported six more cases – all, including Mr Tang, linked to the Xinfadi market.
The virus was traced to a chopping board used by a seller of imported salmon at the market, but officials remain stumped over the new cluster’s origins.
Genome sequencing pointed to its source being Europe and the cluster could have originated from contaminated seafood or meat imported into China, according to Dr Yang Peng, a researcher with the Beijing Centre for Diseases Prevention and Control, in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV.
“The next three days are crucial for Beijing because those who might have been infected from Xinfadi are likely to develop symptoms in the next few days,” Dr Wu Zunyou, the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention’s chief expert, told CCTV on Monday.
He said the coronavirus can survive on the surface of frozen food for up to three months and that the agency “highly suspects” contaminated goods as the source of the latest outbreak.
China has halted salmon imports and major supermarkets in Beijing have removed the product from their shelves, Reuters reported.
The Xinfadi market, which supplies 80 per cent of Beijing’s farm produce, has been shut for disinfection. Some 8,000 stallholders and workers from the market had been tested for the virus as of Sunday, officials said yesterday. At least 59 tested positive, The Guardian in London reported.
The deputy head of the district that is home to the market, as well as the market’s general manager, have been dismissed for "failing to implement" proper virus prevention and control work.
Several neighbourhoods in Beijing, including the financial district that is home to the headquarters of China’s biggest banks and financial firms, saw their risk levels raised to medium from low.
“I can sense the panic although I live quite far away from the market,” said Ms Cathy Liu, 26, an intellectual property analyst. “The unknown origin makes it more terrifying. We can’t rule out the possibility of a huge outbreak in Beijing.”
There are also fears that the new outbreak will spread from the capital to the rest of the country.
Over the weekend, Liaoning and Hebei provinces reported new cases believed linked to those in Beijing. Sichuan province reported one suspected case on Monday.
Several Chinese cities have urged their residents not to travel to Beijing, according to The Guardian. Those entering the city from other areas will be subjected to travel history checks, the authorities said.
Officials also cautioned those who had not been to either Xinfadi or Yuquandong markets not to visit hospitals in the city for nucleic acid tests, to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system.
Beijing’s new cases are especially alarming given that the capital has for months been under strict travel restrictions and quarantine measures to prevent the spread of infections from elsewhere.
The city had only just begun to return to normal everyday life, with residents going back to work and venturing outside again.
Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin sounded a positive note, however.
“There is no way Beijing (will become) Wuhan 2.0,” he wrote on Twitter on Monday.
“The world will see China’s powerful capacity in controlling the epidemic, including government’s strong leadership, respect to science, public’s willingness to cooperate and nationwide coordination of control measures. We will win again.”