Airport staff in protective gear man a health inspection desk at Nanjing’s Lukou Airport. Photo: Xinhua

Having just fought off Covid-19 resurgences involving the highly transmissible Delta strain in southern China’s Guangzhou in May and June, China has again been hit by the variant since earlier this month.

Mass testing, lockdowns and epidemiological probes have shifted to the eastern megacity of Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province. 

Nanjing’s main Lukou Airport has now become a “Delta distribution center,” say some experts from the National Health Commission (NHC). About 200 infections linked to the airport have been reported across both Nanjing and far-flung regions as of Wednesday. 

There are warnings that, despite the seemingly modest tally, emerging cases in Nanjing and elsewhere risk igniting a nationwide outbreak if not contained quickly. The Delta strain has again punctured China’s border defense while the mediocre efficacy of Chinese vaccines has long been the soft underbelly of the nation’s self-declared triumphs over the virus. 

Initial findings at Lukou Airport suggest that the Delta strain could have “hitched a ride” on a flight from Moscow on July 10 and soon infected workers who went on board to collect trash and disinfect the aircraft.

These workers were then assigned to clean planes operating domestic flights and thus passed the pathogen to colleagues and other airport staff. The community outbreak hitting Lukou, a major aviation hub in eastern China that handled 20 million passengers last year, was not detected until after regular testing of at-risk personnel on July 20, when at least nine infections were found. 

Several provinces including Liaoning, Hunan, Sichuan and Anhui have reported cases linked to Lukou after carriers had stopovers at Nanjing’s airport in past weeks. 

Major cities in these provinces including Chengdu, Shenyang and Dalian have sealed off shops, restaurants and residential quarters and whisked patients and close contacts to isolation, after the NHC issued several emergency notices to cope with any further “viral spillovers” from the Nanjing airport.  

The NHC and the municipal government of Zhangjiajie in Hunan province, a popular resort city, are also racing to track the 2,000-plus tourists from across the nation who watched a performance in a theater there packed full of mostly unmasked spectators this week. The crowds at the show included passengers that used the Lukou Airport and later developed symptoms. 

In Nanjing, cadres have scrambled to reinstate sweeping measures such as a de-facto city-wide lockdown unseen in China after Wuhan, the initial epicenter of the contagion, reopened in April 2020.

Barricades and checkpoints have been set up at major expressways and stations to turn away those seeking to flee Nanjing but who cannot produce a clean medical slate issued by authorized hospitals. 

Nanjing’s sprawling Lukou Airport has been closed since Tuesday. Photo: Xinhua

While rushing to mass-test its 9.5 million residents in a campaign that has yielded close to 100 cases so far, according to local papers, Nanjing dithered on suspending flights from Lukou for days until a closure was ordered by Beijing on Tuesday.  

The official China Newsweek cited experts with the Chinese Center for Disease Control (CDC) as saying that Nanjing’s lockdown was “too late” and that they were “bemused and disappointed” to see that it took so long to close the Lukou Airport, when undetected and asymptomatic carriers of the Delta strain could spread it across the nation, even though some flights had been curtailed before the full shutdown. 

More state media have expressed exasperation, accusing Nanjing of being delinquent in implementing Beijing’s imperative to shore up border defense, especially at key airports still receiving foreign flights.

Xinhua said segregating international and domestic flights as well as the airport personnel processing them was crucial and Nanjing would have to explain its failure. Lukou Airport’s CEO has been suspended pending a disciplinary investigation. 

Foreign and domestic arrivals must be separated for risk control, state media says as Beijing moves to shore up border defense amid new strains. Photo: Xinhua

Another inconvenient truth about Nanjing is that its high vaccination coverage of airport workers and city residents has failed to snap infections chains. Previous reports by the official Nanjing Daily boasted that close to 100% of Lukou airport staff had been fully vaccinated while the city’s overall coverage was close to 60%. Like elsewhere across China, the vaccines used in Nanjing were predominantly inactivated shots supplied by Sinovac and Sinopharm. 

An immunization planning specialist with Shanghai’s CDC told Asia Times that China’s rising vaccination figures 1.6 billion doses as of Thursday  may lull people and policymakers into a false sense of security since some frontline, at-risk workers got their shots in the first quarter and their antibody levels and protection from Covid would have started to wane. 

The expert said Beijing should seriously consider rolling out booster shots to cover all at-risk workers on the double and inoculate them every six months.  

Zhong Nanshan, China’s top pulmonologist and the head of a Beijing-convened advisory panel on Covid, has also urged that, in the face of the formidable threats from the Delta variant, Nanjing and other cities battling the viral spillover should categorize anyone who has been in any indoor venue with a confirmed patient as a close contact, regardless how big the venue is or if he had close interactions with the patient or not. 

“Cities must swing into action swiftly to identify anyone that used the terminals at Nanjing’s Lukou Airport where the infected cleaners worked,” Zhong said.

“Some may think that Lukou’s terminals are huge and being in the same complex with a small number of patients may not mean huge risks. Let me tell them, it’s not.

“Likewise, the 2,000 members of audience of the Zhangjiajie show should all be counted as close contacts and be isolated for proper observation. We must not take any chance here.” 

Read more: