The new Beijing epidemic is a reminder that the coronavirus can return at any time

The Chinese capital has not reported locally transmitted infections for 55 days and life has returned to normal. Businesses and schools reopened, people returned to work, and city public transportation and parks were once again full of crowds.

But that facade of normalcy collapsed last week, when a fresh group of coronavirus cases emerged from the city’s wider wholesale food market, infecting more than 180 people as of Friday.
In a few days the metropolis of more than 20 million people was put under partial blockade, Authorities have reintroduced restrictive measures previously used to fight the initial wave of infections, close housing estates, close schools and ban hundreds of thousands of people believed to be at risk of the virus from leaving the city. In just five days, about 356,000 people were tested.

Avoiding infections in Beijing, the seat of the Communist Party and previously considered the safest cities in the country, is a stark reminder of how easily the virus can return to the persecuted places where it was thought to have tamed them.

Five days before the start of the current epidemic, Beijing authorities have just reduced the city’s level of public health emergency warning from level 2 to level 3. It was raised to level 2 on Tuesday night.

Similar precautionary stories have surfaced several times in recent months, with governments rushing to prevent recurrences after seemingly bringing the initial infection numbers under control.

South Korea, which has been praised for its success in fighting the virus, has been battling an outbreak of infection since late May after easing social distancing rules and reopening schools. Until then, Singapore was considered the success story of the coronavirus wave of infection erupted in April among migrant workers living in overcrowded dormitories.

Second wave of infection

In China, the initial wave of infections largely stopped by the end of March, thanks in large part to stopping concerns, which have halted much of the country. As epidemics worsened in other countries, China closed its borders to most foreigners, introduced strict checks at airports and quarantined all returning Chinese citizens. Despite preventive measures, clusters of local infections continued to flare up in the northeast of the country in April and May, all of which related to imported cases.

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But the current Beijing epidemic is the worst outbreak of coronavirus to date, and authorities are still trying to find its source.

Previously, reports linked the epidemic seafood or meat, after traces of the virus were reportedly found on a chopping board sold on the market by imported salmon. However, there are now concerns that the virus has been spreading quietly for weeks before it was first detected.

“This epidemic in Beijing probably didn’t start in late May or early June, but probably a month earlier,” Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told a meeting in Shanghai on Tuesday.

“There must have been a lot of asymptomatic or mild cases on the market, that’s why the virus has been detected so much in the environment,” he said.

Evidence from the United States suggests that between 25% and 45% of infected people are likely to have no symptoms, and epidemiological studies show that these individuals can transmit the virus to someone who is not infected.

Over the past months, some Chinese health experts have warned of a possible second wave of infections, even as Chinese state media have repeatedly pointed to the government’s success in fighting the epidemic and compared it to the failure of Western governments.

In the exclusive interview with CNN in May, top Chinese respiratory science expert Dr Zhong Nanshan warned that China still faces the “big challenge” of a potential return of the virus and that authorities should not complain.

“Most … Chinese people are currently still susceptible to Covid-19 infection, due to (()) lack of immunity,” Zhong said. “We are facing a great challenge, it is not better than the foreign countries I am thinking of at the moment.”

The courier delivers items online by residents living in a gated community in Beijing.

Outflow “under control”

The outbreak of the epidemic in Beijing will be the last test of China’s coronavirus prevention strategy.

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On Thursday, Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist of the Chinese CDC, won in a winning tone, saying the epidemic in Beijing was already “under control”.

Wu said it was still likely that newly confirmed market-related cases would emerge in the coming days – but that’s unlikely because of the fresh transfer.

“Newly diagnosed cases that are reported on a daily basis do not respond to new infections, and an outbreak under control does not mean there will be zero new cases tomorrow,” Wu said.

“Cases will be reported tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. These reported cases are a process of detecting previous infections. They are not new infections. New infections are only sporadic,” Wu said.

The chief epidemiologist said it was not unexpected to see a new outbreak in Beijing, given the large number of new global cases.

“As long as there are risks of imported cases, imported infections and tiny clusters caused by imported infections can occur anywhere in China. From this point of view (the outbreak in Beijing) is normal,” he said.

CNN’s Steven Jiang contributed to the reporting.

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