Millions more Chinese people ordered into lockdown to fight Covid outbreaks | China

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Millions more people in China have been ordered into lockdown and Hong Kong has banned transit passengers from 150 places as China continues to battle outbreaks across several provinces a few weeks before the Winter Olympics.

China’s national health commission reported 110 new locally transmitted Covid-19 cases for Monday, including 87 in Henan province, 13 in Shaanxi, and 10 in Tianjin.

The cases in Henan, which include at least some of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, prompted the lockdown of five million residents in the city of Anyang on Monday evening. Anyang recorded 58 of the 87 Henan cases. At least two Omicron cases have been confirmed in the city in recent days, linked to an outbreak in Tianjin, about 500km away.

Anyang residents have been ordered into their homes and banned from driving on the roads, according to the state news agency Xinhua. Non-essential businesses have been closed down. Also in Henan, Zhengzhou city has closed schools and kindergartens and barred in-restaurant dining, while Yuzhou remains in lockdown.

Xi’an city in northern China is in its third week of strict lockdown, while Shenzhen in the south has implemented targeted lockdowns of some housing compounds and launched a mass testing drive.

Across numerous Chinese cities, public and long distance transport has been reduced or suspended, including multiple flights from the US.

Tianjin is of particular concern to authorities over its proximity to Beijing, and officials have pledged to fulfil the city’s role as a “moat” to protect the capital. The origin of the Omicron strain is eluding officials. Zhang Ying, the deputy director of the city’s CDC, recently said it may have been spreading “for some time” before it was detected.

With the Winter Olympics just around the corner, there are mounting concerns and rumours circulating about harsher restrictions to come. On Saturday a 39-year-old woman was arrested for allegedly disseminating false information about plans to shut down the popular Beijing party district Sanlitun, and on Tuesday the Beijing organising committee rejected rumours of plans to close some or all of the city during the games. Deputy director Huang Chun said the Omicron variant was spreading quickly around the world but the “closed loop” system for athletes, employees and others attending was running “smoothly” and there was no need to adjust it unless there was an outbreak within it.

In Hong Kong, where a relatively small number of Omicron cases have also been detected, authorities have reportedly planned to ban all international transit passengers coming from about 150 places. Bloomberg reported on Monday the ban would be extended to air passengers from “Group A” countries, which have been designated high-risk, from 15 January to 14 February. According to Bloomberg, diplomats, government officials, athletes and staff travelling to the Games would be exempt from the ban.

China is under pressure to maintain its official commitment to a zero-Covid strategy which has been challenged by the latest outbreaks and Omicron cases. As of December officials claimed to have fully vaccinated more than 82% of the population. However there are concerns that Omicron has a substantial ability to evade immune responses and current vaccines are less effective.

China uses Sinovac and Sinopharm, two domestically developed and produced vaccines based on inactivated viruses. Dr Daryl Cheng, medical leader for the Melbourne vaccine education centre, said there were concerns that these types of vaccines appear to have a higher rate of breakthrough infections with Omicron.

“We’re stuck in a perfect storm at the moment where Omicron is significantly infectious, and in places like China where they may have a higher rate of breakthrough infections,” Cheng told the Guardian.

“It puts the population at significant risk of infection … [and] if you’re going for Covid-zero it puts higher strain on resources.”

Cheng said Sinovac and Sinopharm – like all currently used vaccines – were developed before Omicron appeared, and so it was expected that they all would have reduced effectiveness, as happens with vaccines against new variations of the flu, which are adjusted each year.

“The question is whether or not further boosters of the same vaccine achieve greater effectiveness [against Omicron], versus needing to mix and match, versus developing a newer version of the traditional vaccine,” he said.

“It’s a very complex and multifactorial discussion because you may not have the time or availability [to get it to people].”

Some countries are giving a booster on top of citizens’ two doses with a different type of vaccine, often an mRNA type. China had indicated it would approve the mRNA vaccine developed by Pfizer for domestic use in 2021 but has not done so. There are no mRNA vaccines approved for use in China. Cheng said China may be developing an mRNA vaccine but Omicron was “spreading by the day”.



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