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Biden’s team says it’s on alert for Omicron disruptions in China

A worker wore a protective suit while swabbing for a coronavirus test as part of a round of citywide COVID-19 testing in northern China's Tianjin Municipality,Sun Fanyue/Associated Press

The Biden administration is monitoring real-time data obtained from businesses operating in China to determine whether outbreaks of the Omicron variant of coronavirus pose a risk to US supply chains, an administration official said.

It’s too early to tell whether there will be any impact on the American economy from the variant’s spread in China or from aggressive efforts by officials there to stamp it out, the official said.

The official asked not to be identified discussing the administration’s efforts because the data is not public.

President Joe Biden and his team have been accused by political opponents of being caught flat-footed both by pandemic-related supply-chain disruptions that have driven inflation to four-decade highs and by the arrival of the Omicron variant in the US-- where it’s caused record numbers of cases and hospitalizations.

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China, meanwhile, has pursued a “COVID Zero” strategy, in which it has locked down entire cities to stop outbreaks. The country reported 66 cases from local transmission on Wednesday, down from 163 on Jan. 16, the most in one day during the Omicron surge.

China’s embassy in Washington, D.C. didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the new US monitoring initiative.

US consumers and businesses have lapped up Chinese goods through the pandemic. By value, China was the biggest source of US imports in 2021, at $456.8 billion, or almost 18 percent of the total.

US officials put in place an early-alert system during the rise of the Delta variant last year, which improved the federal government’s monitoring of global supply chain disruptions as they occurred around the globe, the administration official said.

Information is shared with companies in the supply chain to alert them of potential delays, the official said.

The data collection begins with the US embassy in Beijing and the State Department’s regional bureaus, which mine contacts around the country to gain a better view of the virus’s spread.

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The White House has asked the State Department to put the system on high alert for Omicron disruptions, the official said. The department has increased the frequency at which it shares information with the White House to multiple times a week, the official said.

The data capture port and air-freight activity as well as information that private-sector companies provide to the government about their own facilities or suppliers in China. It informs forecasting systems used by White House economists to measure the impact on the US economy.

Outbreaks in China have caused some slowdowns in air freight due to lengthened cleaning protocols, which impact how quickly a cargo plane can be turned around.

But due to the one-off, isolated nature of outbreaks so far, it’s too early to determine what impact those shutdowns or delays may have on the US economy, the official said. Over the course of the pandemic, a number of companies have also shifted production away from China, which could help limit the impact on the US.

During the rise of the Delta variant, the administration was focused on semiconductors and the automotive supply chain, which saw significant production delays after outbreaks caused the temporary shutdowns of chip factories in Vietnam and Malaysia.

Much of the onus is on private-sector companies that are themselves on alert for potential bottlenecks. Since the beginning of the pandemic, firms have altered their supply-chain practices and have kept the government apprised of any disruptions they see, the official said.

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