Omicron’s “stealth” BA.2 variant is spreading rapidly in China

People line up for nucleic acid tests at a temporary Covid-19 testing site on March 22, 2022 in Shenzhen, China’s Guangdong province.

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BEIJING — As mainland China battles its worst Covid-19 outbreak since the start of 2020, local governments are increasingly saying the new omicron BA.2 variant is to blame.

This is the new Covid subvariant, which preliminary research shows is even more transmissible than the original omicron variant – but does not necessarily cause more severe disease.

Mainland China has reported more than 1,000 new confirmed Covid cases per day since March 12, with the number above 2,000 in the past three days. This does not include the number of asymptomatic cases, which may be just as many, or even many more, than the number of daily confirmed cases.

From the northern province of Jilin – which accounts for more than half of new daily cases – to industrial hubs like Tangshan and Shenzhen, local authorities have blamed omicron BA.2 for the latest wave of Covid.

“Omicron BA.2 caused this outbreak and is spreading faster and easier than previous viruses,” the export-heavy province of Fujian said in an online statement Tuesday, according to a CNBC translation of the Chinese text.

The subvariant is also “stealthier” and harder to find, but infections are mostly mild or asymptomatic cases, the Fujian government said.

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The scientists also described BA.2 as a “stealth” variant because it contains mutations that could make it harder to distinguish from the older delta variant using PCR tests.

Despite apparent changes in the severity of the virus, China has maintained its strict zero-Covid policy of using rapid regional lockdowns to control outbreaks. The strategy had helped the economy quickly return to growth after the initial shock of the pandemic in early 2020.

Different provinces or cities may impose quarantines or travel restrictions on people coming from other regions, or at least require valid virus tests, adding barriers to commercial travel.

For example, a company had to change its truck driver to a local driver before the vehicle entered a city in the Guangxi region, said Klaus Zenkel, president of the southern China branch of the Chamber of Commerce. of the EU in China. “Otherwise he cannot enter the area where he has to deliver the goods.”

Zenkel is based in the southern city of Shenzhen, which ended a week-long lockdown on Sunday evening.

“If you compare this lockdown for the seven days of last week, March 14 to March 21, it was almost harder than two years ago when the pandemic started,” he said, referring to tighter government restrictions on international travel and stay-at-home policies. .

Small businesses suffer more

More than half of mainland China shut down in February 2020 for an extended Lunar New Year holiday in a bid to control the initial outbreak of Covid-19 in the country. The economy contracted this quarter, but quickly rebounded.

This time around, multinationals could maintain production by keeping workers in the same area as factories, but smaller companies lost a week of production, Zenkel said Wednesday. He said district governments are asking companies to share their losses, for possible compensation plans.

Shenzhen is roughly back to normal, but many people were still getting tested daily so they could present valid negative results as needed for in-person business meetings, he said. “Let’s hope [with] all these experiences and all the data from China, the Chinese government can find a way to go from zero-Covid to “living with Covid”.

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Across the country, Covid testing remains the main way for authorities to confirm whether people are allowed into a city or whether a neighborhood can end its lockdown. These tests – which cannot yet be self-administered at home – now cost only around 8 yuan ($1.25) in Beijing, or free if organized by community leaders.

At a Shanghai city press briefing on Wednesday, Wu Fan, vice-dean of the Shanghai Medical College of Fudan University, stressed the need for the public to maintain social distancing, comply with testing and to health code controls and to monitor themselves carefully.

“This time, the omicron BA.2 variant seems to work very quickly,” Wu said, according to CNBC’s translation of the Chinese remarks. “It’s not enough to drive him away. [We] also need to cut the path in front of him.

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