China is slowly beefing up restrictions in Beijing and continuing a punishing lockdown in Shanghai as it tries to control the spread of Covid in the world’s most populous country, an approach the top U.S. infectious disease doctor criticized as ineffectual.
There were 4,651 infections reported Thursday in Shanghai, including 34 in the community, defying a lockdown that has confined residents to their homes for more than a month. The city won’t ease restrictions until cases in the community reach zero for three days in a row, officials said.
Beijing posted 50 cases, its 12th double-digit day, while the central Chinese city Zhengzhou announced a snap lockdown designed to cripple transmission of the pathogen. Officials in the provincial capital of Henan province, which hosts a massive iPhone factory, hope the early introduction of sweeping curbs will bring its flareup under control in about a week’s time.
Foxconn Technology Group, the iPhone maker, said its operations are currently unaffected as factory workers are operating in a “closed loop,” where they sleep and live on-site.
Officials are living up to their zero tolerance vow, despite the impact it’s having on the economy and quality of life. The lockdowns are unlikely to be successful in the long-term because the government isn’t using the time to boost vaccination rates among the highest-risk elderly, and the shots it is delivering are less effective, White House medical adviser Anthony Fauci told a German talk show.
Lockdowns must be used to prepare the population to prevent the future spread of infection, Fauci said on the Maischberger show. Doing a lockdown and nothing else is a strategy that doesn’t work, he said.
Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the Communist Party-backed Global Times newspaper and an influential commentator, also warned of the dire consequences of repeated lockdown for China’s economy and its global stature.
In an article initially posted to his official WeChat account Thursday, Hu said the Chinese capital is facing a make-or-break battle against omicron and Covid Zero is only worth pursuing when the cost is manageable. The piece was subsequently deleted.
Some cities in China including Shenzhen and Jilin have successfully gotten outbreaks under control. Lockdowns and movement restrictions limited interactions in those areas, preventing the virus from leaping from one person to another. The country’s two largest cities are adapting the same battle plan in hopes of also quashing their outbreaks.
Beijing has been steadily putting restrictions into place since Friday, before the Labor Day holiday. Officials banned eating in restaurants, required negative test results to enter almost all public venues and encouraged residents in the eastern Chaoyang district, where the outbreak has concentrated, to work from home.
As the holiday came to an end earlier this week, the government suspended schools for another week and shut down a large number of subway stations in eastern Chaoyang and other areas where infections have been detected.
Municipal leaders on Thursday reiterated that work-from-home exemptions should only be granted to select employees of the central government , leading state companies and those performing essential services.
Several rounds of mass testing for most of the city’s 22 million residents helped root out silent transmission of the virus, but new cases are still emerging.
Challenge of Zero
That underscores the challenge of cutting infections caused by the stealthy omicron variant to zero outside of quarantine, said Yang Beibei, an official from the Chaoyang district, where most of the over 500 infections reported in the past two weeks have concentrated.
Nationwide, there were 5,038 cases on Thursday. The last time China reported no new infections nationally was in October. The highly-infectious nature of the omicron variant means that the cycle of outbreaks is likely to continue, offering no respite to residents like those in Shanghai who have already endured five weeks of lockdown.
“It is possible for Shanghai to get back to zero from this current outbreak,” said Benjamin Cowling, a professor and chair of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong. “It is also possible that there would be new outbreaks of omicron in Shanghai in the coming months, causing further disruption to the city when lockdowns are re-implemented.’
The financial center has tried to minimize damage to its economy as the lockdown drags on, putting in place measures to restart production at more than 70% of its industrial manufacturing facilities. Among 660 “key” industrial companies, 90% have resumed output, Zhang Hongtao, an official with the municipal government’s economic affairs department, said at a briefing.
The social costs of the strict Covid Zero playbook has nevertheless continued to mount. Incidents where people have been denied medical care during lockdowns have occurred repeatedly across China, sparking a public outcry. The latest involved an 18-month-old in Jiangsu province who died from choking on April 30 allegedly because a hospital refused treatment.
Authorities said that the boy wasn’t denied care but it took five hours to transfer him to a better equipped facility in Xuzhou. An investigation found that neither hospital required testing before treating the boy.
The county hospital in Suining, where the family first sought help, failed to properly inform them of the possible consequences of the toddler’s condition and didn’t relay patient information in time to the city hospital, according to a statement from Xuzhou city government. The hospital director was removed from his post and the consulting doctor’s medical license was suspended after the investigation.
The question of how long China plans to keep up the approach remains, particularly when most places globally have accepted that the virus is now ubiquitous. Whenever China lowers its defenses, it will have to confront the pathogen.
Despite the fact that more than 80% of the country’s 1.4 billion people are fully vaccinated and half have received booster shots, the virus has continued to spread. The country has instead relied on hardcore restrictions to control the virus at bay throughout the pandemic.
China has exclusively used homegrown shots, mostly inactivated vaccines from Sinovac Biotech Ltd. and Sinopharm that were crafted from the original virus in Wuhan to immunize its population, Bloomberg Intelligence analysts Lei Zhong and Sam Fazeli wrote in a note to clients. The shots are less effective than the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer Inc., BioNTech SE and Moderna Inc., and many people haven’t gotten the three doses needed for full protection, they said.
“The widespread use of mRNA-based vaccines is the only effective way China can achieve high immunity to Covid-19 and avoid repeated, painful lockdowns,” they said.
The chief scientist at Sinopharm’s vaccine-making subsidiary China National Biotec Group said omicron dented the effectiveness of its original Covid vaccines by 60% to 80%, making new immunizations necessary.
It is developing shots to target omicron using three platforms, including both the old-fashioned inactivated technique and the latest mRNA technologies, Zhang Yuntao said in a interview with state media People’s Daily that the company posted on its official WeChat account.
The heavy Covid toll in places like the U.S. and Europe means they are unlikely to face the situation China is currently confronting again, Fauci said. While few people were vaccinated a year ago, the vast majority now are immunized or have recovered from an earlier infection, he said.
A strict lockdown in the U.S. or Europe would be very surprising, according to Fauci, who said he doesn’t anticipate an “explosive pandemic” outbreak in those areas again.
(Adds comment from former Global Times editor in seventh and eighth paragraphs; details on Beijing’s status in the Buildup section.)
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