China is struggling to contain its biggest coronavirus outbreak since the pandemic erupted in Wuhan two years ago, as the Omicron variant tests the country’s zero-tolerance strategy (ZCS).
Health authorities reported on Friday that daily case numbers have tripled in the past week, adding up to more than 1,000 cases across 16 cities and forcing officials in northeastern China to erect emergency makeshift hospitals.
Shanghai is at risk of being locked down, officials said. The financial hub will close all primary, middle and high schools from March 12 and that students will need to shift to online classes until further notice.
The Shanghai government said on its official WeChat account that kindergartens and preschools will also suspend classes.
The city of Qingdao reported more than 300 local infections, more than any other among the dozens of cities that reported local cases for Thursday.
The size of the latest outbreak is much smaller than many others outside mainland China, but the increase in the number of cases could add pressure to China’s “dynamic-clearance” ambition to curb each transmission as quickly as possible.
Analysts say China is unlikely to give up ZCS, although elements might be tweaked in coming months.
“Abandoning ZCS now could be perceived as conceding that the strategy did not work in the first place,” Ting Lu, chief China economist at Nomura, said.
The 2022 Asian Games, which are set to be held in Hangzhou in September, will also demand a zero Covid-19 environment.
China detected 703 domestically transmitted asymptomatic infections for Thursday, according to data from the health authority on Friday, up from 435 a day earlier.
That marks a sharp increase from a daily average of about 10 such cases in the first two months this year, Reuters calculations showed.
Another 397 local symptomatic cases, which China classifies separately from symptomless infections, were reported for March 10, the National Health Commission said.
“Infections in vaccinated individuals are more likely to be asymptomatic than infections in unvaccinated individuals, and vaccine coverage is now very high in China,” said Ben Cowling, an epidemiology professor at the University of Hong Kong.
About 87% of China’s 1.4 billion population have received complete doses for primary vaccination as of late February, and around 40% of the population has received a booster shot.
However, China’s vaccines are considered not as effective as mRNA vaccines developed in Germany and the US.
“Another impediment for exiting ZCS are the concerns over the efficacy of China’s domestically made vaccines and China’s relatively underdeveloped healthcare system,” Lu said.
- Reuters, with additional editing by George Russell