China's Covid-Zero strategy turns more elusive as symptom-free cases grow

China remains the only country in the world bent on weeding out every coronavirus infection within its borders. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - China reported more infections in people who exhibited no symptoms of Covid-19 on Tuesday (Nov 9) than in those who were actively suffering from the virus, indicating the challenge the country faces in eliminating the highly infectious and insidious pathogen.

Among the 89 confirmed cases, 46 had no outward signs of the disease. It was the first time that infected people with no symptoms outnumbered those with symptoms during the broadest outbreak that China has experienced since the virus first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019.

Of the 31 provinces on the Chinese mainland, 20 have reported infections caused by the Delta variant, including the capital Beijing.

China remains the only country in the world bent on weeding out every infection within its borders, defying a global trend of learning to live with Covid-19 after more infectious variants rendered restrictions less effective and made eliminating it markedly more difficult.

Mass vaccination and the roll-out of booster shots have significantly reduced the burden of the disease, with the majority of fully vaccinated people developing mild or no symptoms if they contract a breakthrough infection.

"It's different now than a year ago because the consequences of infection, particularly if you're vaccinated, are less marked than they were a year ago," said Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious disease expert at the Australian National University Medical School in Canberra.

While China has seen severe disease among elderly patients with underlying medical conditions, the country has not reported a single death related to Covid-19 for nearly 10 months.

With more than 75 per cent of the population fully vaccinated, most patients experience only mild symptoms.

The country has reported at least a dozen asymptomatic infections every day for the past week.

Many of the stealthy infections were found only after the authorities were alerted to the potential for community transmission following a case that emerged during routine testing of workers and residents.

In some extreme cases, close contacts tested positive after they emerged from prolonged quarantine periods.

"The reality is that it's more difficult to control now," Prof Collignon said.

"But equally, the consequences - providing you get high levels of vaccination - are much, much less than they were a year ago."

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