Coronavirus: cases in Xian may be slowing but anywhere in China could be next, says health expert

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Xian reported a significant drop in new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, raising hopes of a slowdown in the spread of the coronavirus in the northwestern Chinese city where 13 million people have been in lockdown for almost two weeks.

The National Health Commission reported on Wednesday that locally transmitted cases in Xian fell from 95 on Monday to 35 on Tuesday – the lowest daily total since late December.

But Zeng Guang, a former chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, cautioned that this would not be the last Covid-19 outbreak in China.

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“[Xian] is battling the Delta variant [of the coronavirus] that spreads faster [than the original strain], and the virus has been spotted simultaneously in many covert places,” the Xian Evening News quoted Zeng as saying.

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He also added that the chains of infection in Xian were not obvious when compared with previous outbreaks in China.

“[And] what is happening in Xian right now might be happening in other Chinese cities,” he said.

Ma Guanghui, deputy director of the Shaanxi provincial health commission, said case numbers over the past few days suggested the outbreaks were coming under control.

“Although the case number has been high for many days, the rapid rise in Covid-19 spread at that community level has been brought under control compared with the early stages of the outbreak,” Ma said on Tuesday.

“The overall trend is downward.”

Jin Dong-Yan, a virologist with the University of Hong Kong, said there was more to interpreting the direction of an outbreak, such as the one in Xian, than merely case numbers.

“It could be a turning point and we hope it is. However, numbers of confirmed cases can fluctuate,” he said.

“It’s more informative to look at the onset of disease and at the date of infection, which is more difficult to determine. If a peak of cases based on the onset of disease has already been reached and has already gone down, it’s a good sign.

“However, they might not release all key information, or what they release might be inaccurate.”

Jin said there was a delay when confirming cases, possibly because multiple tests were being carried out.

“In fact, most cases were confirmed when they are no longer contagious. Due to the time lag, the drop of confirmed cases likely reflects a much earlier drop in disease onset or virus transmission. If that can be substantiated, it is a turning point,” Jin said.

Xian’s officials have been criticised for their handling of the lockdown, with residents complaining about food shortages and the local Covid-19 tracking app crashing twice in 14 days.

Officials said the main problem was a shortage of workers to make deliveries, and they were working to get supplies to residents to improve the situation.

Xian has been in lockdown since December 23 and has recorded 1,793 Covid-19 cases since December 9.

The city has finished six rounds of citywide mass testing. According to the seventh national census, the permanent population of Xian is about 12.95 million, suggesting that more than 70 million Covid-19 tests have been carried out in the city. Officials started the seventh round of testing on Tuesday.

Across China, the central province of Henan reported four symptomatic cases and 18 more asymptomatic cases and Shanghai reported four asymptomatic cases. Zhengzhou, the capital city of Henan province, with a population of about 10 million, started its first round of mass testing on Wednesday after the city reported one positive case on Monday.

Additional reporting by Zhuang Pinghui

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