Tianjin has emerged as a new area of concern after more than 20 Covid cases were reported there in recent days. Photo: Twitter

HONG KONG – China is scrambling to contain a new viral wave as Tianjin, a port city near the capital Beijing, was hit over the weekend by the highly infectious Omicron variant less than one month before the Winter Olympics commence on February 4.

Tianjin reported two Omicron cases on Saturday morning involving two women who worked at a children care center and school. By Sunday, the city with a population of 14 million situated just 30 minutes from Beijing by train had reported 21 total cases.

Meanwhile, in nearby Henan province, a total of 60 cases were identified on Sunday, of which at least two in Anyang City were caused by Omicron. Health authorities said the Omicron cases in Henan and Tianjin had the same origin.

China reported a total of 97 local infections on Sunday, including 15 in Shaanxi province and one in Shenzhen. In Hong Kong, dozens of local Omicron cases have been reported over the past two weeks as some flight attendants carried the virus to the city.

Based on epidemiological investigations and gene sequencing results, the source of the Omicron infections in Henan has been identified as a college student who returned to the Tangyin County area of Anyang City from Tianjin’s Jinnan District on December 28.

China’s Covid cases are still minuscule compared to those being recorded in the West, where the seven-day daily average number of new infections hit 177,113 in the United Kingdom, 718,210 in the United States, 262,319 in France and 49,479 in Germany.

But the arrival of Omicron on the mainland is raising hard new questions about the future viability of Beijing’s “zero Covid” policy, particularly as the nation opens its doors to thousands of foreign athletes for the upcoming Winter Olympics to be held from February 4-20.

“The current round of Tianjin epidemic has shown the characteristics of rapid transmission, strong concealment and strong penetrating power,” Zhang Ying, an official at the Tianjin Center For Disease Control and Prevention, said in a press conference on Saturday.

Residents wait in line to get tested for Covid-19 on January 9 in Tianjin, China. Photo: Screengrab / CNN

“From the relationship between cases and the chain of transmission, the virus has been circulating in Tianjin for at least three generations,” she said. Zhang said it was possible that the Omicron variant had been spreading in Tianjin for some time before it was identified.

“The current Tianjin outbreak has infected a higher proportion of younger age group of students,” Zhang Boli, a senior medical adviser to the Chinese government on Covid, told local media. “This might be a new trait of omicron variant that’s worth our vigilance and response.”

On Monday, a commentary published on the website of the China Communist Party (CPC) Central Inspection Discipline Commission said virus outbreaks in different Chinese locales had recently made the country’s epidemic situation more complicated.

Local governments should continue to contain the virus and try to stop virus spread within a time frame equivalent to one incubation period, which is about two weeks, the article said.

Since Saturday, Tianjin’s local government has stopped residents from leaving the city unless they could prove their journeys were essential and they could provide a negative Covid test in the last 48 hours. On Sunday, the government said the entire population in Tianjin would undergo Covid-19 tests.

Tianjin’s leaders, meanwhile, vowed to serve as a moat to protect the Chinese capital from the viral spread, according to a municipal meeting led by the city’s Communist Party Secretary cited in news reports.

At the same time, the Center for Disease Prevention and Control in Beijing said the capital city was facing domestic and external epidemic risks as people would travel more frequently later this month due to next month’s Chinese New Year, which significantly will coincide with the Winter Olympics.

The Center said people must remain vigilant against Covid-19 and avoid unnecessary travel between Beijing and Tianjin.

“We could not achieve absolute zero local infections, but we have the ability and confidence to quickly contain the virus whenever there are outbreaks,” Liang Wannian, deputy director of Beijing’s health bureau said, stressing that China’s “dynamic zero infections” strategy did not actually mean maintaining absolute zero infections.

A medical worker in China tests a resident for Covid-19 in Xi’an city, December 2021. Photo: Reddit via AFP / Stringer

The situation in Xi’an city has shown the policy can be porous. The local government there locked down the city from December 23 after daily infections exceeded 100 for several consecutive days. The city has so far recorded more than 2,000 cases in a gathering epidemic wave, which reports say was caused by the Delta, not Omicron, variant.

Last week, the city’s epidemic situation improved as the number of cases fell below 100 per day. But the restrictions came at a cost as local residents complained about food shortages and the lack of essential medical services.

Zhong Nanshan, a prominent Chinese pulmonologist, said lockdown measures in Xi’an had shown positive results despite the criticism, as the number of daily cases in the city was declining. He said he was confident that people could return to their home towns before the Chinese New Year as interprovincial travel would still be allowed later this month.

Zhong added that, theoretically, China had achieved “herd immunity” as 86% of the population in China was vaccinated.

However, he did not comment on the low efficacy rates of the locally-made Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines used in China compared to those applied in the West, as well as the fact that the majority of vaccinated Chinese have not received third booster shots.

Zhang Wenhong, an infectious disease expert, said Western countries have maintained relatively low death rates during the Omicron wave because their vaccination rates had reached 70-80%. But it’s not clear that will also be the case in China amid reports Sinovac is particularly ineffective against Omicron.

Read: Senior HK officials put in quarantine after party

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3