Food stalls in a crowded pedestrian street in Guangzhou are converted into testing centers as China’s third-largest city moves all out to contain a resurgence in May. Photo: Xinhua

Covid-19 has crept back into China where it first emerged and spun out of control worldwide more than a year ago. Two clusters are now growing in Guangdong, the nation’s most populous province and the largest provincial economy. 

Road barricades, community lockdowns and paramedics in hazmat gear are back in Guangdong’s megacities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, which sprung into action at the end of last month to squash flare-ups involving new, more virulent strains from abroad.

The fear is that both cities’ slack immunization progress may increase the risk to their tens of millions of residents. Guangzhou and Shenzhen are China’s third- and fourth-most populous cities, ranked only after Shanghai and Beijing, with each boasting a population of close to 20 million, according to China’s latest census held last year.

Authorities there are taking no chances while admitting that some people fully vaccinated with homegrown jabs are among those infected. 

More than 130 cases, including dozens of asymptomatic ones and silent carriers, had been logged in both cities and throughout the rest of Guangdong as of Monday, after an elderly woman in Guangzhou caught the virus at the end of May.

The patient, said to be a retired resident and a food lover in her 70s, has emerged as a super-spreader responsible for 111 cases with her “restaurant-hopping” lifestyle, according to the province’s health authority.  

The caseload appears modest by international standards but has caused great consternation in Guangzhou. The city has been jolted out of its complacency as the spike suggests the virus could have been lurking for some time and known cases may be the tip of the iceberg.

Paramedics collect samples from residents in Guangzhou. The source of the current flare-up remains unknown. Photo: Handout

Sweeping isolation and city-wide, no-one-left-behind testing blitzes are now in force. Exhaustive epidemiological investigations have failed to trace the source of the Guangzhou woman’s infection. She had not traveled outside the city for nearly a year. 

The Delta strain (B16172) she had is still ravaging India and is said to be as much as 50% more infectious than existing mutations. Guangzhou has been partially closed down in a way eerily reminiscent of how Wuhan – Covid’s initial epicenter – was sealed off in early 2020. 

Large tracts of Guangzhou’s heavily build-up downtown districts either home to the infected or visited by them have been placed under a blanket lockdown, while residents in neighborhoods not yet fenced in can still get out and about, they are told not to leave the city or they must obtain a negative test result at least 48 hours before their trips.

Police have cordoned off toll booths on all expressways leaving Guangzhou to check on those fleeing. The Guangzhou Daily reported that about 310,000 vehicles had left the city in the past week.

Guangzhou’s railway and airlines have also stepped up their inspection of test results and will turn away those without a valid clean Covid slate. The city has also pared down subway services and closed key interchange stations for inter-city departures. 

Closing off a first-tier city and corralling people into homes and isolation camps have not been seen in China since Wuhan. These measures have fueled unease among the masses, with some suspecting the viral situation may be worse than reported. 

A makeshift testing center in Guangzhou, a city of close to 20 million people. Photo: Handout

Zhong Nanshan, China’s top pulmonologist and head of an elite expert panel advising Beijing on Covid who lives in Guangzhou, has warned that if the Delta strain is unchecked, the city could slip into an India-like abyss.

Calls have been issued for the city, one of the few hubs in China still receiving international flights, to close its doors to shut out more transmissible strains.  

In Shenzhen, another cluster is growing among container port workers who went on board a foreign vessel and got infected with the Alpha mutant strain (B117). The city is on a wartime footing to give more protection to port workers and track down possible close contacts while fending off any spillover from neighboring Guangzhou.

More health check red tape and disinfection of containers have led to a growing tailback of trucks waiting at Shenzhen’s ports, with a logjam of 30,000 containers waiting to be shipped. 

Health officials and the public are also coming to terms with the apparent mediocre potency of indigenous vaccines. 

The Guangzhou Daily and Southern Metropolis Daily have both revealed that a dozen of those infected in Guangzhou and all port workers in Shenzhen had been inoculated with locally made jabs. These cases drive home the fact that the shots supplied by Sinopharm and Sinovac may offer only limited protection against new viral mutations. 

The resurgence has brought out crowds swamping vaccination centers in Guangzhou but to the dismay of the panicked residents, the city has suspended its immunization program. Photo: Xinhua

The Beijing-based Caijing Magazine quoted infectious disease experts as saying that existing vaccines may have limited power to neutralize the Alpha and Delta strains, though Guangzhou has not yet reported patients with severe complications or on ventilators.

None of the infected port workers in Shenzhen showed outward symptoms of the disease.

The National Health Commission said on Sunday that more than 777 million shots had been administered across the nation, without specifying the number of people fully vaccinated. 

But in a move that has stirred ill-ease, Guangzhou stopped its inoculation of residents from June 1, seen by some netizens as a tacit admission of the underwhelming efficacy of Chinese shots against the new strains. The city’s officials said more medical manpower is needed for more mass testing of residents than giving shots.

Read more: