A medical worker taking a swab sample from a woman outside a residential compound following a new outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Shijiazhuang, in northern China's Hebei province. Photo: AFP via China Out/Stringer

China’s Covid-19 containment success story is being put to the test as new clusters pop up in the northern Hebei province, a geographical buffer zone around the capital Beijing.

The National Health Commission (NHC) and provincial authorties on Thursday warned of “sparkles of cases here and there setting an entire prairie ablaze” after sporadic outbreaks since the New Year in Hebei’s capital of Shijiazhuang have grown into bigger clusters that now threaten to spread through the entire city. 

Shijiazhuang and the rest of Hebei recorded more than 100 local infections since Monday, with 53 new cases alone on Thursday, marking arguably the biggest wave seen in China after China lifted its lockdown on the original epidemic epicenter of Wuhan in early April.

Shijiazhuang, home to more than 10 million residents, is about one hour by train from Beijing. 

Hebei’s party chief Wang Dongfeng declared a de facto state of emergency in the province on Wednesday evening, vowing to squash the rising infection trend with measures including travel bans to insulate Beijing, where preparations for the annual parliamentary session in early March are underway. 

Health workers take an oath behind a Communist Party flag before heading for Shijiazhuang. Photo: Handout

Sweeping and draconian anti-virus measures put in place during Wuhan’s 76-day lockdown have been largely reinstated in Shijiazhuang, a clear indicator of the gravity of the viral situation.

Shijiazhuang has shut its main train station with all Beijing-bound departures suspended until February 4. Expressways to Beijing and Tianjin from the city were also closed on Wednesday evening, but one-way trips from Beijing to the city are for now still allowed.

Most flights to and from Shijiazhuang have also been canceled, with passengers from the city facing the prospect of mandatory quarantine in their destinations, even if they have negative virus test results. China Post and SF Express have stopped the collection and delivery of parcels in the city.  

Now that all districts in Shijiazhuang have stepped up checks on commuters to curtail unnecessary trips, the city’s metro operator announced on Wednesday less frequent train services on all lines.

That triggered an immediate backlash from those who still have to travel to work, with concerns raised that fewer departures may mean even more crowded trains and thus heightened risks of infections. 

Most parts in downtown Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei, were deserted on Thursday amid the largest Covid-19 resurgence in China since Wuhan. Photos: WeChat, Handout

The outbreaks are putting China’s anti-virus response mechanism to a crucial new test, one that threatens to undercut the country’s so far successful containment of the disease.

Shijiazhuang is now testing all residents and those living in the suburban Gaocheng district, where the current wave first hit, will be tested multiple times.

The 836-square-kilometer Gaocheng district is now being referred to as a “new Wuhan” and is under a full lockdown. It is currently the nation’s only “high-risk area” under the NHC’s three-tier regime.

More surveillance cameras have been installed to check on residents given shelter-at-home orders, with police constables in the streets on the lookout for lockdown violaters.

Shijiazhuang is also in the process of releasing and updating a list of places where all known patients have visited, as officials and technicians continue to trawl through footage derived from facial recognition and other surveillance mechanisms. 

NHC’s director Ma Xiaowei has blamed an asymptomatic carrier of the virus for the outbreaks. Undetected by layers of screening in place, the carrier reportedly crisscrossed Hebei and Beijing.

Ma revealed to the state broadcaster China Central Television on Thursday that the virus could be from Europe, without confirming if it was the more highly contagious new strain first identified in the United Kingdom. 

Ma’s deputy Feng Zijian, who oversees the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention, also made a candid admission to CCTV a day earlier that most of the patients in Hebei had not been checked or isolated early on.

Insufficient Covid-19 detection and diagnosis in frontline hospitals and clinics have become a weakness in China’s efforts to keep the infection curve flat, he said. 

Heads may roll in Hebei and at the National CDC after Xinhua ran two op-eds this week lambasting Hebei’s belated mobilization. The province did not start daily press briefings to update the public until three days after the first case was found in Shijiazhuang on January 2. 

Across the provincial border in Beijing, local cadres have also been told to beef up checks on arrivals and goods to prevent spillovers from Hebei. The Chinese capital is also battling local flareups with a total case tally expected to soon hit 1,000.

Panic is already spreading despite the modest numbers, with shelves at supermarkets stripped bare of food and daily necessities as Beijingers fear they may too soon be told to stay at home.

Panic-buying hoards have ironically sparked fears of more infections. Beijing’s government has assured people of ample supplies of food and said that stores must ensure people are spaced out and admissions are staggered.  

China’s time-tested Covid response mechanism, including mass testing and lockdowns that are proven to be effective in tackling previous flareups, is again put to test in Beijing and Hebei. Photo: Handout

There have been suggestions to inoculate the infected and their close contacts in Beijing and Hebei to snap infection chains now that China is on the cusp of giving priority and at-risk groups shots of its indigenous attenuated vaccines. 

Professor Yang Zhanqiu of the Wuhan University’s Institute of Virology told the state-run Global Times that only mRNA vaccines, like those produced by Pfizer and BioNTech and now being administered in some Western countries, could produce special protein antibodies to neutralize the virus already present or latent in a confirmed patient or asymptomatic carrier.

He said attenuated vaccines from domestic drugmakers like Sinopharm and Sinovac could only offer protection from Covid-19 for uninfected people.    

“The mRNA vaccines may mitigate the harm of the coronavirus when someone catches it, to speed up recovery and make the patient less likely to pass the virus to others… But it still makes sense to mass inoculate healthy residents in Beijing and Shijiazhuang with attenuated vaccines,” said Yang. 

China has again appealed to people to avoid trips outside their home cities until after the Chinese New Year break in February, fueling new speculation that the entire nation is at risk from the current outbreak. The NHC previously claimed that other than known outbreak hotspots, most tracts of the nation should remain Covid-free. 

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