China tightens pandemic control over Tianjin, a city of 14 million people near Beijing, as its zero-Covid-19 strategy is tested by the country’s first discovery of community-borne cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant.
Over the past day, Chinese authorities have stepped up travel controls, closed schools and imposed a series of local restrictions in the city about 120 km southeast of the Chinese capital, state media reported.
Tianjin residents have been told not to leave the city and those trying to do so will require negative tests. The latest measures followed the launch Sunday of a citywide test campaign in response to at least two Omicron cases discovered a day earlier.
The infections were the first community transmission of the highly contagious variant in the world’s most populous country. Tianjin is about 30 minutes by high-speed train from Beijing, and tens of thousands of people travel daily between the cities.
The discovery of Omicron transfer within China’s borders also comes amid a crisis in central city Xi’an, which has been closed since December 22. Authorities were criticized after residents in the 13m city were left without access to medical resources and food.
One Beijing-based immunologist, who asked not to be named, said it was “unclear” how effective China’s vaccines would be to slow down or stop the distribution of Omicron.
Despite concerns about Xi’an, Beijing’s rigid controls under its zero-covid strategy still appeared to be “the most effective approach” before more effective vaccines or treatments were available in China, the immunologist added.
The National Health Commission in its latest update on Monday reported 199 new cases of coronavirus, including 99 cases transmitted locally, of which 23 were found in Tianjin. The commission reported 92 local cases on Sunday.
Two more Omicron cases have been reported in Anyang, a city with more than 5 million people in central China, one of which is possibly linked to a student who arrived from Tianjin, local media said.
The case load is much smaller than many other countries struggling with outbreaks of the Omicron variant. But the confirmed arrival of Omicron poses a major challenge for the government amid concerns over the efficacy of China-made vaccines.
The worldwide attention to the outbursts and reaction of the Chinese Communist Party will also intensify in the coming weeks with the Winter Olympics scheduled to start in Beijing early next month.
Additional Reporting by Maiqi Ding in Beijing and William Langley in Hong Kong