China is confronting its broadest COVID-19 outbreak since the pathogen emerged in late 2019 after the SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant broke through the country’s defenses, with cases now in 14 provinces.
While the overall number of infections — more than 300 so far — is much lower than outbreaks elsewhere, the wide spread indicates that the variant has been on the loose for some time and is alarming officials who wield the strictest containment measures in the world.
It is the biggest challenge for the world’s second-largest economy since the virus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. China’s strict regulations — including mass testing, aggressive contact tracing, quarantines and occasional lockdowns — crushed more than 30 previous flareups.
The arrival of the more infectious Delta variant is testing that approach. The new strain might be exploiting the population’s willingness to lower their guards when it comes to masking and distancing, since much of the country has been free of COVID-19 for months. That, along with increased travel during the summer, created a perfect storm for Delta to gain a foothold.
The initial infection arrived via an overseas flight from Moscow into the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing in mid-July, and took hold there among the airport cleaning staff.
China reported 99 infections yesterday, including 44 people who tested positive but have no symptoms. By number of cases, it is the biggest outbreak since the the one in Hebei in northern China in January, when 2,000 people were infected. The broad spread is more concerning, with infections having reached highly protected Beijing, and as far as Hainan Province in the south, 1,900km from Nanjing.
It remains to be seen if the country’s vaccination rate, close to 60 percent and among the highest in the world, can slow Delta’s spread and keep serious illness and death at bay. Most of those infected in Nanjing have been immunized. The shots appear to protect against serious disease, with 4 percent of those infected battling severe disease so far. Many of them have preexisting conditions such as asthma, diabetes or high blood pressure, said Guo Yanhong (郭燕紅), an official of the National Health Commission, at a briefing in Beijing on Saturday.
While all COVID-19 vaccines have seen their effectiveness dented by Delta, concerns are high that non-mRNA vaccines like the Chinese ones and AstraZeneca’s shot will be less able to slow transmission.
State-owned Sinopharm said its inactivated-virus COVID-19 shot, a mainstay for the Chinese population, is 68 percent effective against Delta, citing a study in Sri Lanka. Sinovac Biotech, the other major Chinese supplier of shots, said that samples from people inoculated with its inactivated-virus vaccine can neutralize the Delta strain in laboratory studies, state newspaper Global Times reported.
Delta has shown that immunizations alone will not bring the outbreak to heel. Last week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed its earlier position and said fully vaccinated people should go back to wearing masks indoors in places where infections are rising.
“Delta accounts for 80 percent of cases in the US, and they re-instituted a requirement for masks,” said Wang Huaqing (王華慶), a chief immunization expert at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, at the Saturday briefing. “That means Delta’s spread is severe and personal protection can not be slackened even with vaccination.”
Adding to the concern are a cluster in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou, and cases being reported in Henan Province, where the ability to curb the virus’ spread may be weakened due to the fallout from torrential rain that has killed hundreds and destroyed infrastructure.
Residents in Nanjing, where the recent outbreak began, have been placed under lockdown. In Beijing, government and state company employees have been barred from leaving the city.
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