People wear masks as a precautionary measure against Covid-19 in central London on April 16, 2020. Photo: AFP/Anadolu Agency

Wuhan, the Chinese city widely believed to be the initial epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic, is on high alert again amid reports of an even more contagious strain of the novel coronavirus emerging in the United Kingdom.

To prevent what some are referring to as a possible “backflow” of the pathogen, Wuhan has urged the Chinese Civil Aviation Administration to ban any passenger or chartered flights originating from the UK. The city is also mulling halting cargo flights from the British capital after a new route between the two cities was launched in September. 

Chinese state media has so far refrained from linking the latest Covid-19 mutation in the UK to the alternative Covid-19 origin narrative being disseminated by some Chinese officials and health pundits who have claimed the virus may not have originated in China.

Still, Wuhan’s official Yangtze Daily suggested on its WeChat account that the fast-evolving situation in Great Britain could be new evidence that the virus could have “multiple versions and multiple origins,” and it could become more common and widespread by being “in the right place at the right time,” like one year ago in Wuhan and now in London.

Wuhan netizens now refer to London as the “new Wuhan” and wonder if Britain’s newly-installed ambassador to China, Caroline Wilson, may have brought the new strain to their city after she spent four days in Wuhan from December 12 to 15, during which time she was seen not wearing a mask while attending multiple official events.

Wilson flew from London to China at the end of October and underwent 14 days of quarantine at the embassy compound in Beijing. Reports suggest the new variant of the disease was first discovered in southeastern Britain in September.

Caroline Wilson, Britain’s new ambassador to China, attends an event in Wuhan on December 16, 2020. Photo: Handout

Wuhan is also said to have urged London’s consulate in the city to suspend personnel changeovers and ask British diplomats to postpone their trips.

Wuhan, once under a curfew-like city-wide lockdown for 76 days between February and April, has not reported any locally-transmitted cases since at least May, according to a nationwide case tracker updated by the National Health Commission. 

A recent Reuters report, replete with images of Wuhan residents partying without masks in crowded bars and generally not adhering to social distancing measures, showed that life has returned to normal at the pandemic’s original epicenter.

That could soon change. Major cities elsewhere across China have also heightened their response levels amid talk that Beijing may soon close its borders to anyone from the UK, including Chinese expats and students. 

With cases suspected of being linked to the UK strain being reported in the Netherlands, Denmark and Italy, people returning from other European countries can now expect more checks and questioning upon landing, although passenger flights between China and Europe have long been curtailed to bare-bones services.

In Shanghai, local health experts have suggested stepping up inspections of passengers from Hong Kong and prolonging their mandatory quarantine at designated, sealed-off facilities to as long as three weeks.

On Wednesday, three flights from Heathrow, operated by Air China, China Southern and Virgin Atlantic, are scheduled to land at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport. 

Macau has already added an extra seven days to the 14-day isolation routine for anyone entering from Hong Kong, out of the fear that the mutated and potentially more lethal virus, called B.1.1.7, could have already crept into the former British territory since there were multiple flights between Hong Kong and London until Monday this week. 

In Beijing, National Center for Disease Control and Prevention vice-director Feng Zijian told China Central Television that no related cases had been observed in China, adding that measures would be beefed up at airports and border checkpoints to fend off the “super coronavirus.”

“We conduct frequent sequencing and ‘identity checks’ on virus samples collected from local and imported cases and so far no UK-linked mutations have been found in China,” said Feng.

He added that the Chinese CDC could neither confirm nor deny preliminary data from the UK suggesting that the new Covid strain could be 70% more infectious than known types. 

“These data, as far as we know, are based on mathematical models and projections, but they do offer a perspective that Covid-19 keeps evolving when it infects its way through more human populations.”

Health workers in hazmat gear disinfect an international terminal at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport. Three flights from London are scheduled to arrive on Wednesday. Photo: Xinhua

Questions have also been raised about how much protection vaccines – now being progressively rolled out across China and the West – can offer against the latest mutation that the global scientific world is still struggling to understand. Tests are reportedly already underway.

Chinese state media previously reported that the overseas third-stage human trials of the country’s vaccine candidates were mostly held in Asia, the Middle East and South America, so the efficacy of the Chinese vaccines against the new strain from the UK remains to be seen. 

The National CDC has reputedly finalized a plan to inoculate about 50 million medical workers, police and immigration officers, airport staff and other essential workers before the Chinese Lunar New Year break, which will start on February 12 with the nationwide travel rush starting a week early.

It has been reported that 100 million doses, of two to three types of the attenuated vaccines supplied by SinoPharm and Sinovac, would be distributed. Since two shots are required 14 days apart, the first mass vaccination is being planned to start in China in mid-January.  

Since November, China has placed more entry requirements on passengers from the UK. Within 48 hours prior to boarding the only six approved flights between the two countries, passengers must obtain a stamped Certified Health Declaration Form from the Chinese embassy and consulates in the UK and present their negative results of nucleic acid and IgM anti-body tests issued by verified clinics.

Meanwhile, numerous Chinese students enrolled in British universities and boarding schools are also agonizing over whether they should return home as planned since Beijing has not yet banned flights into the country. But there are others who are contemplating going to the UK amid all the risks.

Chinese students wear masks as they walk in a street in London. Photo: WeChat

“To go to the UK at such a perilous, uncertain time may probably mean there is no return [back to China] anytime soon, but I also really want to visit the campus of my university, after already spending the first semester taking online courses from my home in Shanghai,” Zhang Yuan, a postgraduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Asia Times. 

Britain is the second most popular destination, after the United States, for Chinese students. In 2019, there were close to 120,000 Chinese students attending courses offered by tertiary institutions in the UK, according to the Chinese Education Ministry.

The pandemic did not deter Chinese students in the first half of this year, as British universities received 24,000 Chinese applications for undergraduate degrees, up 23% over a year ago, according to the UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.  

In March and April, Beijing chartered several flights to fly home thousands of Chinese students stranded in the UK.  

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