In Depth

Is China’s Covid-19 pandemic response stalling?

Tough restrictions reimposed as Beijing battles coronavirus variants amid concerns about efficacy of home-grown vaccines

Residents of one of China’s biggest cities have been placed under total lockdown in a bid to prevent the spread of the Delta variant of Covid-19.

The highly transmittable coronavirus strain, first discovered in India, is believed to have triggered a spike in infections in Guangzhou, capital of the southern province of Guangdong. 

The authorities in Guangzhou tested “practically its entire population of 18.7 million between Sunday and Tuesday, some for the second time”, in a race against time to stop the spread, The New York Times (NYT) reports.

But with hundreds of millions of people across the country still waiting to receive Covid vaccinations, and mounting doubts about the efficacy of Chinese-developed jabs, fears are rising “that tough quarantines and restrictions could persist into next year”, the paper says.

Pearl River Delta

All but a handful of more than 100 infections reported in the latest outbreak in Guangdong have been in Guangzhou, where officials have cited the Delta variant as “a driver behind the uptick in cases” recorded since the latter part of May, CNBC reports.

A 75-year-old woman was the first reported case of the strain in the city. “She visited a restaurant and ended up infecting her husband,” says the US broadcaster, and the virus “then spread to other areas of the city”.

Liwan, the western district where the woman lives, remains the worst hit part of the city and has been placed under strict lockdown. Residents of some areas are confined to certain zones, while others are not permitted to leave their buildings. “Twenty-four hour checkpoints have been set up to monitor movement in and out of these areas,” according to CNBC, which says that “restaurants and entertainment venues have also been shut down”.

Shipping operations in China’s south have been affected too, with “delays that are spreading over the world’s busiest port cluster set to further exacerbate global container shortages”, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reports.

Companies operating out of major ports in cities including Guangzhou and Shenzhen are planning to keep tight restrictions in place for at least another week, and are warning of further “congestion and delays”, the paper adds.

Despite the tough measures being taken to contain the latest Covid outbreaks, hopes are fading that life will return to normal any time soon.

The implementation in Guangzhou of mass lockdowns, rapid testing and restrictions on movement around the city is a variation of the “forrmula” that China has followed “for dealing with the coronavirus for more than a year”, the NYT reports.

But after China “appeared to get the coronavirus under control” by imposing often draconian measures, the “new outbreak suggests that they could be part of Chinese life for some time to come”, says the paper.

Variant vaccines

Hundreds of millions of people across China remain unvaccinated against Covid-19, with latest Oxford University tracking showing that around 825 million doses have been administered to the total population of around 1.4 billion. And as new variants of the virus have emerged around the globe, “questions remain about whether China’s self-made vaccines can stop them”, the NYT reports.

At a briefing in mid-May, virologist Dr Shao Yiming of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said preliminary research suggested that China’s vaccines could protect against the variant from India “to a certain extent”, as Reuters reported at the time.

But concerned commentators have pointed to data from Chile, which is battling a surge in infections despite orchestrating one of the world’s fastest vaccine rollouts using the Chinese-developed CoronaVac jab.

As the number of daily new cases recorded surged to new highs in April, the BBC reported that critics of Chilean President Sebastian Pinera were accusing his government of “getting caught up in triumphalism” over the speed of the country’s jab rollout and “loosening coronavirus restrictions too fast”.

However, “there is also confusion about how the vaccine that the vast majority in the country has received works”, according to the broadcaster. Research by the University of Chile suggests that a single dose of the CoronaVac jab was only 3% effective in protecting against infection. 

And a range of studies have shown that two doses of the Chinese vaccine “offers only 50% effective protection against infection”, reports openDemocracy  - meaning that half of all people who get both jabs remain at risk of contracting the coronavirus. This relatively low level of protection may explain why Chile’s Covid case rates have continued to rise.

Doubts have also been raised about the efficacy of the Chinese-developed Sinopharm vaccine, with both the Seychelles and Mongolia reporting rising Covid infections despite running speedy vaccination campaigns using the jab. (The Seychelles has also used doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab.)

Meanwhile, “China’s leaders are pushing its people to get vaccinated”, with “Chinese media outlets using the Guangzhou outbreak to encourage skeptics to get inoculated”, says the NYT. “Guangzhou at least does not have to worry about running out of pandemic supplies: It is coincidentally a hub for manufacturing and exporting them,” the paper adds.

But with experts worldwide warning that the Delta strain may be more resistant to Covid vaccines, Beijing will be anxiously awaiting the results of the new real-life tests of China’s home-grown jabs.

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