BEIJING – Neighborhoods under strict confinement. Thousands of people in quarantine. Millions of people tested in just a few days. Overseas arrivals are locked up for weeks and sometimes months.
China has been following variations of this formula to fight the coronavirus for more than a year – and a new outbreak suggests they could be a part of Chinese life for some time.
China appeared to have the coronavirus under control almost a year ago. But hundreds of millions of Chinese still remain unvaccinated. New variants of the coronavirus have emerged and questions remain as to whether vaccines made by China can stop them.
The latest cases were discovered in Guangzhou, capital of the southern province of Guangdong. Authorities blamed the Delta variant, which caused many fatalities in India.
The city tested almost all of its 18.7 million inhabitants between Sunday and Tuesday, some for the second time. It has also locked neighborhoods of more than 180,000 inhabitants in total, hardly anyone being allowed out, except for medical tests.
The first infections seem to have jumped from person to person in a group of restaurants. Each infected person has infected more other people than in any previous outbreak that China has faced, Zhang Zhoubin, deputy director of the Guangzhou Center for Disease Control, said at a press conference.
“The epidemic that Guangzhou is facing this time is an unprecedented adversary, and it requires more resolute and decisive measures to deal with it,” he said.
The testing facilities in Guangzhou have been operating 24 hours a day. The lines are long. Residents wake up early to try to beat the crush, but still find delays.
Mandy Li, a longtime resident of Liwan District, where most of the infections have occurred, said she set her alarm clock for 3:30 a.m. She still had to wait an hour.
“In the queue there was a family of three,” she said. “Some woke their children to stand in line, and some had strollers. But everyone was cooperative and silent, as we know that some volunteers and medical workers worked very hard and they sat there the whole time without rest.
China’s approach has evolved since the outbreak of the coronavirus, when Beijing initially imposed severe restrictions on hundreds of millions of people. Today, its blocks are focused on neighborhoods rather than cities or provinces. China has made vaccination the centerpiece of its strategy.
Yet many fundamentals remain for a huge and densely populated country: extensive testing, strict limits on movement, and careful scrutiny of arrivals from other countries.
Foreign companies fear that these limits on international travelers will scold their plans. A European Union Chamber of Commerce survey released this week found that three-quarters of member companies said they were affected by travel restrictions, usually preventing them from bringing in key engineers or executives.
Beijing has demanded that travelers from dozens of countries spend two weeks in employer-supervised quarantine before even flying to China. Once there, travelers must spend at least two weeks and sometimes three or more in government-supervised quarantine, even if they are fully vaccinated. Series of tests can give a false positive, resulting in more testing and additional days or weeks of isolation.
A German national who visited Shanghai last month said he was sent to a hospital isolation room for three days because he tested positive for antibodies, which he attributed after taking a second dose of vaccine 16 days earlier.
Nurses drew his blood twice a day and took six throat swabs, four nasal swabs and two anal swabs per day, said the German, who insisted on anonymity to avoid offending authorities. The hospital room had no towels, no toilet paper, and no television, and the bed was a steel plate with a thin carpet, he said.
The German said after constantly testing negative for the virus, he was allowed to spend the remaining 11 days in isolation in a government-supervised quarantine center.
Many companies expect China to maintain strict travel restrictions until February, when Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics, and possibly until the fall of next year, when the Chinese Communist Party will hold its congress.
Many foreigners in China are faced with a choice: if they go to visit spouses, children and other family members elsewhere, they may not be able to return to the country later due to the pandemic restrictions.
“There is absolutely growing fatigue for a lot of foreigners who are here,” said Jacob Gunter, senior director of policy and communications at the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China.
At home, the Chinese leaders urge their people to be vaccinated. It administered around 800 million doses according to the government tally, compared to 300 million administered in the United States. Yin Weidong, chairman and chief executive officer of Sinovac Biotech, one of China’s leading vaccine manufacturers, told state television last Friday that Chinese regulators have approved emergency use of vaccines in children as early as age 3.
Yet administering 800 million doses – almost all vaccines require two injections – means most of China’s 1.4 billion people have not been fully immunized. Some people are still hesitant to get vaccinated, and Chinese media have used the Guangzhou epidemic to encourage skeptics to get vaccinated.
The spread of the virus has raised new questions about the effectiveness of Chinese vaccines, especially against the variants. Seychelles last month and now Mongolia for the past three weeks have both had a large number of infections despite high vaccination rates. Both have used China’s Sinopharm vaccine, although Seychelles has also relied in part on AstraZeneca vaccines.
The Delta variant now circulating in Guangzhou has also shown the ability in other countries to infect some people who had previously been vaccinated, a phenomenon known as vaccine breakout. Research elsewhere has found this to be a particular problem for people who have only received a first shot of a two-shot vaccine and are subsequently exposed to the Delta variant.
British researchers have found that receiving only the first of two injections of the Oxford-AstraZeneca or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines may only be 30% effective in preventing infection with the Delta variant, said Raina MacIntyre, who directs the biosafety program at the Kirby Institute. from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
After two doses, the efficacy seems to reach 60% with the AstraZeneca vaccine and 88% with Pfizer-BioNTech. “With the degree of vaccine escape that there is with the Delta variant, you really need people to be fully immunized,” she said.
Mr. Yin, of Sinovac, told Chinese public television on Saturday that a third injection of his company’s vaccine produced a ten-fold increase in antibodies within a week. But Chinese vaccine makers are not yet recommending a third dose.
“As far as China is concerned, in fact, completing the vaccination in two injections is the most important task for all the public,” he said.
In the meantime, Guangzhou has tried to turn its viral failure into a showcase for local technologies. Officials said they used 31 unmanned shuttles and trucks to send food and other essential supplies to locked neighborhoods to avoid exposing delivery staff.
As of Tuesday, Guangdong province had 157 people hospitalized with the virus and reported about 10 new cases per day. The province and Guangzhou itself have banned anyone from leaving since last weekend unless they have a valid reason and a negative nucleic acid test for the virus within the previous 48 hours.
Unlike many places around the world, Guangzhou at least doesn’t have to worry about running out of pandemic supplies – it is coincidentally a hub for their manufacture and export. Chen Jianhua, chief economist of the Guangzhou Bureau of Industry and Information Technology, told a press conference on Wednesday that the city’s daily production capacity was 91 million masks and seven million sets of coronavirus detection chemicals.
Albee zhang contributed research.