A medical team is seen inside a terminal building at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport on Sunday, when almost all airport workers were tested for Covid-19. Photo: WeChat

Five locally transmitted Covid-19 infections confirmed within the space of 72 hours have jolted Shanghai’s cadres out of their complacency. The Chinese megacity of 24 million residents has since Sunday evening scrambled to lock down parts of its sprawling international airport, Pudong, and converted one terminal there into a field testing lab where no one is allowed to leave for downtown districts unless they have been tested and received a negative result. 

The city, which now has the highest caseload of known infections in mainland China, has marshaled its contingent of health professionals to work extended hours since Sunday evening and collected nasal, saliva and blood samples from more than 17,700 people overnight at Pudong. The airport, one of China’s busiest aviation gateways, has since the weekend been identified as an outbreak hotspot, with parts of it now labeled “no-go zones.” 

Shanghai’s health officials, nonetheless, told a hastily arranged press conference Monday morning that, other than the remaining 6,175 samples still pending further testing and verification, all samples had tested negative for Covid-19. 

Shanghai’s latest outbreak began after the China International Import Expo, which was held in the city earlier this month. It was arguably the largest aggregation of people in the world since most cities in the West have became devoid of traders and visitors. 

Initially, the first two cases that surfaced on November 9 at Pudong Airport – two stevedores came down with the respiratory disease – did not deter the 400,000-plus domestic and overseas exhibitors from heading to the expo, nor did Chinese President Xi Jinping cancel his inspection tour of Pudong district during the same week. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior cadres including Deputy Premier Liu He are seen wearing masks during their inspection tour in Shanghai on November 12. Photo: Xinhua

Yet, with fresh cases, epidemiologists at Shanghai’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention now wonder if Pudong’s cavernous terminals and cargo processing facilities are still crawling with the pathogen, despite rounds of disinfection since earlier this month. 

Viral photos and video clips spreading on WeChat and Weibo since Sunday evening show hoards of people, wearing masks but shunning social distancing rules, being herded by medical workers in hazmat gear into temporary testing centers inside a terminal building at Pudong. At one point, nerves were a little frayed as the crowd, believed to be airport employees, became agitated and started to charge at a line of medical workers and security guards. 

Airport workers formed large crowds since Sunday evening as they waited to be tested for Covid-19. Photos: WeChat, Weibo

Wu Jinglei, chef of Shanghai’s Municipal Health Commission, noted on Monday that the five new cases confirmed since November 20 had all been found through “proactive mass screening” of the close contacts of the first two, and that all had been tracked down and hospitalized before displaying outward symptoms. 

Shanghai’s media also quoted Sun Xiaodong, deputy chief of Shanghai CDC, as saying that the virus that sparked the current outbreak in the city could be from the United States, as the two stevedores had worked at UPS’s Shanghai Transshipment and Processing Center at Pudong. 

“The two workers entered a sealed air freight container stuffed with goods from the US at the end of October. They did not wear masks when they cleaned the container after cargo offloading and both were confirmed on November 9. We have ruled out the possibility of people-to-people transmission as the cause of their infections in our thorough investigations,” said Sun during Monday’s briefing. 

“Subsequent genetic sequencing of the virus from the two patients and the five new cases within the past three days all indicate similar sources and there are convincing similarities between the virus we found this time and the Covid strain that is currently doing the rounds in North America.”

After the wife of one airport worker, a nurse, also tested positive, more than 4,100 staff and other patients at a hospital in Pudong have also been put in mandatory quarantine.  

Shanghai’s Airport Authority has, nonetheless, stressed that Pudong was still “safe” for passengers as long as they do not stray into “risk zones” like cargo warehousing facilities and there was no plan to curtail flights. It added that Pudong was only partly shut down. Still, major carriers including the Shanghai-based China Eastern Airlines have canceled most domestic departures from Pudong scheduled for Monday and have instead started feeding passengers to Hongqiao, another airport in the city.  

Questions have also been raised about whether the government’s containment measures are designed to prioritize the economy at the expense of public health. For example, Shanghai has sealed off the warehouse centers as well as residential quarters visited by those infected, but the city still refuses to close Pudong, including the terminals visited by the two infected stevedores and their close contacts. 

Still, Shanghai Airport Group has promised “emergency but voluntary vaccination” for all cargo workers at Pudong. Previous reports by Xinhua and other Chinese state media say the state-owned SinoPharm had shipped batches of its attenuated Covid vaccine, still in final-stage human trials, to airport operators across Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, etc. 

Medical teams are deployed across different terminals at Pudong to check passengers and respond to further outbreaks.
Parts of a terminal at Pudong have been cordoned off as temporary isolation rooms. Photos: WeChat

The Shanghai government’s information office has also taken to social media to refute rumors that more outbreaks had been detected at Shanghai South Railway Station, a major inter-provincial railway node, and all staff and passengers there had been evacuated and isolated. The office said the station was open and all trains were running on time.

That said, many Shanghai residents fear the five new cases could still be the thin end of the wedge, as they wonder if the virus had found its way into the city under the radar. Transport between downtown Shanghai and Pudong Airport is convenient, with maglev trains, metro trains and coaches plying multiple routes from the airport. There are also massive movements of passengers between Shanghai and neighboring provinces like Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui. Health officials in Anhui’s capital Hefei said at least one local case had links with cases in Shanghai. 

“It’s the ripple effect that worries us most, because Pudong Airport has the largest passenger throughput in China and Shanghai is China’s most populous city, and not to mention the three neighboring provinces that are also densely populated… It’s like when there is a cluster of outbreaks hitting the JFK Airport, people in New York City, New Jersey, Connecticut and even Massachusetts should all be worried,” a Shanghai CDC virologist with the center’s epidemiology investigation team told Asia Times.

The expert revealed that all neighboring provinces had activated “Tier-1 response” with real-time tracking of trains and coaches to fend off any potential spillovers from Shanghai. 

Elsewhere across mainland China, Tianjin and Inner Mongolia are also rushing to contain local outbreaks. There are at least two cases in Manchuria, a city straddling the borders of Russia and Mongolia while Tianjin is mass testing all residents in its Binhai district where a cluster of at least eight cases has been reported this month, according to China’s National Health Commission.

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