‘Ferocious’ Omicron outbreak in Beijing sparks closures and mass testing

Beijing is facing a “ferocious” outbreak of Covid-19, officials warned, after they shuttered public venues and reintroduced mass testing mandates less than a week after the city eased restrictions.

An outbreak at a popular 24-hour bar in the Chinese capital’s usually bustling Chaoyang district has infected more than 200 people and forced more than 6,000 people to isolate at home.

The outbreak at Heaven Supermarket bar in the city’s most populous district was detected just days after venues, such as pubs and restaurants, were allowed to reopen following a month-long closure. Authorities have since reclosed all entertainment venues in Chaoyang.

Beijing’s quick reversal in fortunes is mirrored by the woes in Shanghai. Officials forced all but one of the city’s 16 districts to undergo mass testing after new signs of community transmission emerged just a week after the city emerged from a gruelling two-month lockdown.

Some districts, including three at the heart of the financial hub, have imposed lockdowns during the mass testing. Shanghai reported 37 new local cases on Monday.

Experts argued that the rise in cases in Shanghai and Beijing underscored the difficulty of achieving President Xi Jinping’s target of zero-Covid with the appearance of the highly infectious Omicron variant.

“The government wants to eliminate the virus. But the lockdowns and mass testing only serve to mitigate rather than eliminate Omicron,” said Jin Dong-yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong.

Just one positive case that slips through China’s strict Covid controls can cause havoc for thousands of people.

One foreign teacher living in Chaoyang, who did not want to be named, is facing two weeks of lockdown in his apartment after a single case was detected in his neighbourhood.

“We had already just been released from lockdown,” he said, noting that 4,000 other apartments in the sprawling complex were under the same orders to stay at home.

 “It feels like the authorities are overdoing it now,” he added.

Xu Hejian, a spokesman for the Beijing municipal government, said the outbreak linked to the Heaven Supermarket bar was “ferocious” and that authorities were racing to prevent other superspreader events.

The latest outbreaks in two of China’s most prosperous cities were detected after weeks of restrictions that had pushed the official infection rate to zero. But Jin argued that infections could be spreading under the radar of China’s testing regime because of mutations in the virus and vaccinations.

During mass PCR testing, health authorities pool samples to produce fast results and minimise testing resources. This tactic has allowed authorities to test tens of millions of people within a matter of hours.

“This does not work well with Omicron because the variant’s viral load is much lower than the Alpha and Delta variants,” Jin said. “The viral load is even lower for breakthrough Omicron infections.”

Jin added that China’s tactic of mixing samples could mean the tests were failing to pick up positive cases because the low viral load has been diluted beyond detection.

Studies have found that vaccinations greatly reduce the viral load in infected individuals.

Additional reporting by Arjun Neil Alim and Maiqi Ding in Beijing and Andy Lin in Hong Kong

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