China’s goal in Covid zero pursuit shifts amid Omicron outbreak

Omicron’s extensive spread means returning to zero local cases is a tall order, even in cities that repeatedly test all residents, trace close contacts and confine everyone to their homes while the virus rages. 
A worker in a protective suit keeps watch next to barricades set around a sealed-off area, during a lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19 in Shanghai on April 11, 2022. (Reuters Photo)
A worker in a protective suit keeps watch next to barricades set around a sealed-off area, during a lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19 in Shanghai on April 11, 2022. (Reuters Photo)
Published on Apr 12, 2022 02:21 PM IST
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Bloomberg |

China hasn’t budged in its opposition to living with the virus even in the midst of the country’s worst outbreak, but its leaders are now pursuing an easier containment strategy in the uphill battle to tame the hyper-infectious coronavirus.

Omicron’s extensive spread means returning to zero local cases is a tall order, even in cities that repeatedly test all residents, trace close contacts and confine everyone to their homes while the virus rages. Instead, officials have now decided that infections among close contacts already corralled into isolation facilities don’t pose a high risk. 

The new metric to watch is the number of cases found among people who aren’t yet in quarantine. It’s when that metric -- known as “zero infection in the society” in Chinese -- falls to zero that China considers an outbreak contained.

The revamped goal means lockdown measures can start being eased once zero community spread has been achieved, even if there are still high numbers of infections detected every day among those in isolation facilities.

That’s what happened in recent Chinese outbreaks in the tech hub Shenzhen and the northern province Jilin, where curbs were eased before daily case numbers tapered off.

It’s also likely how the situation in Shanghai will play out, indicating that the city’s 25 million residents could emerge from lockdown earlier than the current caseload of over 20,000 infections a day suggests. Only about 3% of infections now being found are in the community, according to the local government. 

“Dynamic Covid Zero doesn’t mean zero infections,” Liang Wannian, one of China’s top epidemiologists, told state media in Shanghai over the weekend. Instead, the focus is on curtailing future transmission, particularly in the community.

“With the virus not able to spread from one person to another, the turning point of the outbreak would naturally emerge,” said Wannian, who has overseen China’s Covid response since the beginning of the pandemic.

Dynamic zero

The change in emphasis to disrupting community spread could embolden local authorities, leading them to ease curbs, get factories running again, and release people from home confinement. The goal is to limit economic and social damage, while reducing the risk of reigniting an outbreak.

Shenzhen lifts citywide lockdown as situation seen controllable 

Shenzhen emerged from a week-long lockdown in mid-March, when community cases accounted for less than one-third of the daily total. Jilin also allowed some areas where no virus was circulating in the community to gradually start opening up.

Yanbian, a prefecture bordering North Korea, started to resume production last week. Farmers in the province are being shuttled to start their spring ploughing under a close-loop system.

Manufacturing and commerce also resumed this week after local leaders said many places within the province had cleared their communities of the the virus. Production at a local state-owned joint venture partner for global carmakers Toyota Motor Corp. and Volkswagen AG in the capital city Chuangchun is set to restart, roughly a month after it was halted, local media reported.

The resumption comes as the province is still reporting nearly 1,000 infections each day.

Xi’an outbreak 

The pivot came during a delta outbreak that plunged the northwestern city of Xi’an into lockdown in December. 

Two weeks after its 13 million people were sealed off, with daily infections at one-third of their previous peak, officials said the curbs had successfully curtailed most spread in the community, which was hailed as a turning point in the outbreak. 

It took another two weeks for local infections to return fully to zero. But the change marked a new direction in China’s approach to combating Covid-19, two years after the country eliminated all signs of the pathogen that first emerged in Wuhan in 2019. 

When the amount of virus circulating is very low, subsequent infections reported among quarantined people during an ongoing outbreak don’t raise as much alarm. The expectation is that getting to absolute zero infections is only a matter of time once it’s contained in the community.  

Why China is sticking with its Covid zero strategy: Quick take

That’s the best hope for Shanghai, the Chinese financial hub that has emerged as the country’s largest documented hotspot. Some select compounds there are now allowing residents to go out in their neighborhoods, provided there haven’t been any reported cases in the previous two weeks. 

The entire city will have its outbreak under control once all of its new cases come from close contacts who are already in isolation, a group that currently accounts for about 97% of them, Liang said. 

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