Jul 08, 2020 03:26 AM

How Beijing Authorities Squelched the Covid-19 Flare-Up

A medical worker wearing a protective suit takes a swap at a temporary test station on July 6, 2020 in Beijing. Photo: Bloomberg
A medical worker wearing a protective suit takes a swap at a temporary test station on July 6, 2020 in Beijing. Photo: Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) — Beijing reported zero new coronavirus cases for the first time in 26 days, a sign the resurgence that ignited fears of a second wave in China appears to have been quickly brought under control for now.

The city of more than 20 million may have quelled a flare-up that sickened 335 people as infections peaked at 36 a day in mid-June. When Covid-19 reappeared in China’s political and economic hub after nearly two months of no locally transmitted cases, authorities took a different approach from what they did in May in a similar circumstance in Wuhan, the central city where the pathogen first emerged.

Instead of resorting to a sudden across-the-board lockdown that risked reversing the gains since China started reopening, Beijing deployed more-targeted measures. While some — like confining whole neighborhoods to their homes — may be more difficult to replicate in Western countries, the response could hold lessons for other nations as they grapple with the inevitable return of the virus.

The Beijing resurgence, which took root in a wholesale food market in the city’s southwestern district, injected fresh uncertainty into the global struggle against the pandemic, striking as citizens were getting used to a semblance of normal life. It served as a warning for other places that seem to have tamed the virus: It is elusive and isn’t easily beaten.

The outbreak set off small virus skirmishes in other parts of China, but authorities contained it in less than four weeks. This is how they did it:

Millions Tested

Hesitant to fully seal off Beijing as officials did in less economically important regions, the city relied on targeted testing at unprecedented speed.

Reminiscent of the mass operation conducted in Wuhan in May, when most of the population was tested for the virus in about two weeks, Beijing tested more than 11 million people so far, according to Pang Xinghuo, deputy director of the Beijing Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Overall, China has the capacity to test 3.8 million samples nationwide every day, officials said June 24, probably one of the fastest speeds worldwide.

China achieved such scale using batch testing, a method in which multiple samples are assessed simultaneously with detailed follow-up if any trace of the virus is found. Even without this method, Beijing can test more than 300,000 people a day, six times the city’s capacity in March, according to Beijing Health Commission official Zhang Hua.

During the Beijing outbreak, entire groups were tested whenever an infection was found in their midst, including all the vendors at several major markets. All workers at a PepsiCo Inc. food factory where a case was diagnosed had to undergo testing, and every delivery courier in the city — more than 100,000 — was also sampled.

Targeted Lockdowns

Rather than confining everyone in Beijing to their homes once the new outbreak emerged, authorities locked down only apartment blocks and housing compounds close to the epicenter. In these high-risk areas, only one member per household was allowed to leave to purchase necessities.

It’s an approach that other countries are also trying. Authorities in the Australian city of Melbourne implemented localized lockdowns to quell a resurgence there. Specific streets or neighborhoods would be told to stay home and practice social distancing, but the rest of the city would remain open. South Korea also has taken a targeted approach, shutting down businesses or schools where there have been outbreaks but never imposing citywide lockdowns.

Schools in Beijing were also closed again to limit commuting, while some entertainment venues were shuttered.

Lessons From Wuhan

China appears to have drawn from the lessons of Wuhan’s devastating outbreak in January, when the virus was not well understood by experts and the system was unprepared for how contagious it is. Then, people swarming hospitals for help spread the virus to other patients and infected the environment.

This time in Beijing, residents were banned from entering hospitals unless they had tested negative for the virus, and makeshift test sites were set up in neighborhoods where cases were found.

Rather than seal off the city as in Wuhan — a move that set off widespread panic among residents and caused them to rush the city’s highways — China imposed quarantine requirements at destinations. People going from Beijing to other provinces have to be isolated for two weeks in government-run facilities upon arrival, naturally discouraging travel. Air carriers canceled flights, even though the airport remained open.

Still Cautious

Despite what seems to have been a relatively quick containment, the flare-up has shifted the contours of China’s fight against the virus. Before the Beijing outbreak, the nation appeared to be largely triumphant in taming a disease that continues to devastate the developing world and the U.S.

The cluster in the capital is believed to have started at the market, but its exact genesis and how it spread remain unknown.

After the virus was found on a chopping board used for imported salmon at the market, a nationwide boycott of the seafood took place that affected exporting countries like Norway and Australia.

Experts say it’s more likely that the salmon was contaminated by an infected person or by being in a dark, humid, low-temperature environment where the virus was present. China’s customs department tested more than 47,000 samples of imported meat, seafood, vegetables and food, and all were found to be negative. Still, the country suspended imports from some foreign meat plants, including a Tyson Foods Inc. plant in the U.S. where hundreds of employees tested positive for Covid-19, a move that potentially undermines its trade deal with Washington.

Amid that uncertainty — and as cases continue to pop up in areas around Beijing — China’s strategy is to remain circumspect. Even as infections taper, officials say they won’t ease restrictions until Beijing has recorded two weeks without any new cases.

“Zero new cases does not equal zero risk,” Pang said in a press briefing Tuesday. “We cannot rule out the risk of new domestic cases in the coming week.”

You've accessed an article available only to subscribers
Share this article
Open WeChat and scan the QR code