Millions of people have been placed back into lockdown in China as the country tries to contain its largest coronavirus outbreak in months with mass testing and travel curbs.
The country reported 55 new locally transmitted coronavirus cases today as an outbreak of the fast-spreading Delta variant reached over 20 cities and more than a dozen provinces.
The latest surge, which state media has labelled the ‘most extensive outbreak of Covid since Wuhan’, began when airport workers in Nanjing who had cleaned a plane that arrived from Russia later tested positive for the virus.
Local governments in major cities including Beijing have now tested millions of residents, while cordoning off residential compounds and placing close contacts under quarantine.
While the number of cases is relatively small they are spread out across the country, prompting state media to compare it to the initial outbreak in Wuhan in 2019.
The central city of Zhuzhou in Hunan province ordered over 1.2 million residents on Monday to stay home under strict lockdown for the next three days as it rolls out a citywide testing and vaccination campaign, according to an official statement.
‘The situation is still grim and complicated,’ the Zhuzhou government said.
Beijing has previously boasted of its success in bringing domestic cases down to virtually zero after the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019, allowing the economy to rebound.
But the latest outbreak, linked to a cluster in Nanjing where nine cleaners at an international airport tested positive on July 20, is threatening that success with more than 360 domestic cases reported in the past two weeks.
In the tourist destination of Zhangjiajie, near Zhuzhou, an outbreak spread last month among theatre patrons who then brought the virus back to their homes around the country.
Zhangjiajie locked down all 1.5 million residents on Friday.
Officials are urgently seeking people who have recently travelled from Nanjing or Zhangjiajie, and have urged tourists not to travel to areas where cases have been found.
Meanwhile, Beijing has blocked tourists from entering the capital during the peak summer holiday travel season.
Only ‘essential travellers’ with negative nucleic acid tests will be allowed to enter after the discovery of a handful of cases among residents who had returned from Zhangjiajie.
Top city officials on Sunday called for residents ‘not to leave Beijing unless necessary’.
The capital’s Changping district locked down 41,000 people in nine housing communities last week.
Fresh cases were also reported on Monday in the popular tourist destination of Hainan as well as in flood-ravaged Henan province, national health authorities said.
The Delta variant, which first emerged in India and is much more transmissible than the original version of Covid, has proved particularly hard to control for many countries which until now had relied on border closures to keep cases low.
Coupled with low vaccination rates, such countries – most of which are in Asia – are now seeing cases rise to record or near-record levels with leaders rushing to impose lockdowns.
Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have all seen cases skyrocket in recent weeks, having previously been hailed virus success stories.
Cases are also at or near all-time highs in Japan and South Korea, though strict domestic lockdown measures there have slowed the kind of exponential growth that is being seen elsewhere.
Australia is also struggling to bring and outbreak of the Delta variant under control, with the city in Sydney currently in the midst of its longest lockdown since the initial wave of the virus hit back in 2020.
The Delta variant is more transmissible than the pathogens that cause SARS, Ebola and smallpox, and as easily spread as chickenpox, according to an internal US Centers for Disease Control presentation reported by The Washington Post and The New York Times.
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