In the Xicheng district where the first case from the new outbreak was found, people lined up late at night over the weekend at a sports stadium that’s been re-purposed as a testing center.
China is racing to control a new outbreak in Beijing that reached nearly 100 infections over the weekend, providing the biggest test of the country’s coronavirus containment strategy since the pathogen first emerged in Wuhan.
Officials are fanning out over housing compounds, knocking on doors to question residents on whether they’ve been to or had contact with anyone who’s visited the city’s largest fruit and vegetable market, Xinfadi, where the new outbreak is believed to have originated.
In the Xicheng district where the first case from the new outbreak was found, people lined up late at night over the weekend at a sports stadium that’s been re-purposed as a testing center. Cases have now spread to another market and over twenty residential compounds across the city were locked down by Monday.
Elementary schools for first to third grade students delayed the resumption of classes and high-schoolers were encouraged to study from home. Some companies told employees to work from home, housing compounds ramped up security checks and swimming pools were shuttered.
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“The risk of virus spread is very high, and resolute and decisive measures are needed to prevent further spread,” vice premier Sun Chunlan said during a state council meeting on Sunday, reported state media.
The abrupt resurgence of cases in the capital of more than 20 million people threatens to disrupt the hard-won normalization of everyday life and business after China quelled its first epidemic months ago. The outbreak in Beijing — China’s cultural and political center where its business elites and political leadership reside — could be a reckoning for the Asian giant’s strategy of aggressive virus control.
While China’s contained outbreaks in its central and northeastern regions through oppressive lockdowns, it’s never had a significant flare-up in a major city until now. There are already signs of hesitation to impose the costly and disruptive measures China has used elsewhere: while transport links were cut off quickly in northeastern provinces when a new cluster emerged last month, Beijing’s domestic flights and train services were still running without interruption as of Monday morning.
But with new cases likely to grow as mass testing gets underway, an escalation of restrictions in the capital could happen quickly.
“One possibility is that further infections will be identified across the city in the coming days, and a city-wide lockdown will be implemented for a few weeks,” said Ben Cowling, division head of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Hong Kong. “Lockdowns in China can be very effective because of the infrastructure for restricting people from leaving their homes but at the same time ensuring that they have sufficient food and other essentials.”
The new outbreak is re-igniting fears that the pandemic, which has sickened over 7.8 million people and killed over 430,000 people worldwide, is nowhere close to burning out. Infections in Japan’s capital of Tokyo are also on the rise, while American states like Florida are reporting record case growth.
Frozen Food Fears
All 79 confirmed cases detected so far in Beijing have been merchants or visitors to the Xinfadi market and their family members. Zhang Yuxi, the market’s chairman, said on Friday that the virus has been traced to a chopping board used by a seller of imported salmon at the market, but officials remain stumped over the new cluster’s origins.
Genome sequencing of the virus points to its source being Europe and the new outbreak could have originated from contaminated seafood or meat that was imported into China, said Yang Peng, a researcher with the Beijing Center for Diseases Prevention and Control in an interview on state television CCTV, on Sunday.
Wu Zunyou, the China CDC’s chief expert, advised Beijing residents not to purchase imported agricultural products or frozen food. He said the virus can survive on the surface of frozen food for up to three months and the agency “highly suspects” contaminated goods as the source of the latest outbreak.
The market, which supplies 80% of Beijing’s farm produce, was closed on Saturday for disinfection while more than 10,000 merchants and employees will undergo testing. Several neighborhoods in Beijing, including the financial district that’s home to the headquarters of China’s biggest banks and financial firms, have seen their risk levels raised to medium from low.
The deputy head of the district that’s home to the wholesale market and the general manager of the market have been dismissed.
“I can sense the panic although I live quite far away from the market,” said Beijing resident Cathy Liu, 26, an intellectual property analyst. “The unknown origin makes it even more terrifying. We can’t rule out the possibility of a huge outbreak in Beijing.”