China outbreak reaches six provinces as omicron takes hold


China is the only major country in the world still aggressively trying to eliminate COVID-19, despite mutations that allow the virus to evade vaccine protection and penetrate even stringent curbs. It’s getting harder: the “COVID zero” country hasn’t reported zero new local daily infections since mid-October.

Here’s a roundup of where the virus is once again breaching defenses:

Health authorities battling outbreaks driven mostly by the delta variant sealed off Xi’an, a western Chinese city with 13 million people, at the end of 2021. The dangerous variant had quietly penetrated many communities and spread without detection. Then came omicron, which fueled further infections across the country. The ultra-transmissible variant has been found in three cities since the beginning of the year, including two with ports that are crucial components in the global supply chain.

Tianjin

The northern port city of Tianjin saw omicron’s first community spread earlier this month. The total number of infections there rose to more than 150 after authorities conducted two rounds of mass testing in the city of 14 million people located about an hour car ride away from the Chinese capital Beijing.

Authorities mandated a half day off earlier this week to allow government and company employees to participate in the second round of testing. The effort uncovered 44 infections, all among people already in quarantine or in areas considered under control.

The efforts to curb omicron’s spread forced Toyota Motor Corp. and Volkswagen AG to halt production in the city for several days. Airbus SE, which has a major airplane assembly hub in Tianjin, has also warned of the variant’s impact on plane delivery and demand in China.

A resident is tested for the coronavirus in Xi'an, China, on Friday. | AFP-JIJI
A resident is tested for the coronavirus in Xi’an, China, on Friday. | AFP-JIJI

Tianjin’s port, the ninth biggest container port in the world, has been operating normally, according to state news agency Xinhua.

Student spread

Omicron quietly latched onto students returning home from Tianjin for winter vacation, seeding another outbreak in Anyang, a city of 5.5 million people in central China. That city quickly became China’s latest virus hotspot, with daily infections rising to a few dozen this week.

Another student carried it from Tianjin to Dalian, a port city in northeastern China crucial for cold-chain imports.

A third port city, Ningbo, is now on high guard against a delta flareup. Its restrictions disrupted trucking services and halted operations at some yards and warehouses in the city, which together with Zhoushan forms the world’s third biggest container port.

Spotted in Shanghai

Also in eastern China, the financial hub of Shanghai detected five infections linked to one person who brought the virus in from abroad. The person only tested positive after being released from quarantine in the city, which also houses the world’s largest container port. Health authorities there are trying to keep curbs to a minimum, and have cordoned off a beverage vendor in downtown Shanghai.

Down south, dozens of infections caused by the delta variant have been found in the Chinese tech boomtown of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong.

Back in Xi’an, authorities are gradually unwinding restrictions as daily new cases fall to single digits, after topping more than 150 at the peak of the outbreak. The city remains largely off limits to other parts of China.

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