China conducts Omicron tests ahead of Winter Olympics

TaipeiA few weeks before Beijing hosted the Winter Olympics, China faced multiple outbreaks of the coronavirus in half a dozen cities. The infectious Omicron variant was driving the outbreak closer to the capital.

With the success of the Games and Chinese national pride at stake, Beijing has doubled down on its zero-tolerance policy against the virus.

More than 20 million people across the country were in some form of confinement, many of them unable to leave their homes.

Tianjin, barely an hour away from Beijing, was on alert, though it avoided a complete quarantine like Xi’an, a city of 14 million people.

Instead, it has isolated many residential areas and universities, canceled almost all flights, suspended high-speed rail services and closed highways. People leaving the city had to submit a negative COVID-19 test and obtain a special permit.

The city on Wednesday conducted a second round of mass testing for its 14 million residents and asked them to stay home until negative results came in.

Tianjin’s proximity to Beijing made the outbreak particularly uncomfortable. During the Tokyo Olympics in July, Japan faced a widespread outbreak due to the delta version of the virus.

However, restrictions on population in Tianjin remained relatively loose.

“Everything is fine, supermarkets and restaurants, you can go to everything normally,” said Yu Xuan, who works at a university in Tianjin.

The measures were in high demand in many cities in the west of Xi’an and Henan provinces, prompting complaints that people kept in their apartments were running out of food.

China has maintained a firm containment policy almost since the start of the pandemic, beginning with the unprecedented move to isolate 11 million people from other parts of China’s province as well as from the central city of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected. was detected. 2020.

Beijing has battled local outbreaks with the help of increased digital surveillance, with quarantines, stricter border controls and contact tracing. The measures have so far prevented a nationwide outbreak. The vaccination rate is over 85%.

With the Olympic Games starting on February 4 and support staff already arriving in the city, the task of keeping the virus at bay has become even more important. A key question is whether Beijing’s safeguards will hold up against the Omicron version.

China reported 124 local infections on Thursday, including 76 in Henan province and 41 in Tianjin. Authorities have reported a total of 104,379 cases, of which 3,460 are active, and 4,636 have died, a figure that has not changed in months.

The lack of major outbreaks in China means the population is protected only by vaccines and not by antibodies produced by past infections, said Dr Vinita Bal, a leading Indian immunologist.

“The Olympics will be the first test,” Baal said, noting that Omicron “could easily travel to China.”

Unlike the bubble used at the Tokyo Games, there will be no contact between the people involved in the competitions and the outside world in Beijing.

Officials, athletes, staff and journalists will travel between hotels and sporting venues in designated vehicles, described as a closed-loop system. Chinese citizens would have to quarantine for three weeks in order to leave the bubble.

Even the garbage will be processed separately.

If the measures are strictly enforced, they should stop the virus from spreading inside the bubble, said Kei Saito, a virologist at the University of Tokyo. But the question turns out.

“Omicron is three to four times more contagious than Delta. I think it’s almost impossible to control the spread of Omicron,” Saito said.

However, despite controversies such as the pandemic and the United States-led diplomatic boycott of the Games, the organizers are determined to see the event go ahead.

“The world looks to China, and China is ready,” Chinese President and Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping said during an inspection tour of the Olympic sites last week.