Health authorities in the southern Chinese megacity of Guangzhou are hoping to stem a new outbreak of Covid-19 infections through vastly expanded testing capacity and strict quarantine measures in affected areas.
The industrial hub – home to almost 19 million people – has been grappling with a growing number of cases since May 21, from a cluster that has been traced to a 75-year-old woman from Liwan district. The woman was found to have been infected with the highly transmissible strain first detected in India, a variant now named Delta by the World Health Organization.
Mass testing has been a key strategy in trying to contain the spread of the virus, especially in the hotspot districts of Liwan, Haizhu, Yuexiu and Tianhe, where getting tested is mandatory. More than 7.81 million of the city’s residents had been tested as of Wednesday, according to Chen Bin, deputy director of Guangzhou’s Health Commission.
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So far, 70 locally transmitted cases have been found across Guangdong province, 14 of them asymptomatic infections. That includes 16 new cases confirmed on Wednesday, five asymptomatic.
China has largely brought the pandemic under control, though it has seen sporadic outbreaks. While the numbers in the latest wave have been relatively low so far, it has spread elsewhere in Guangdong – to the neighbouring cities of Foshan and Maoming, as well as Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong.
In Guangzhou, authorities have transformed the city’s biggest sports stadium into a huge testing facility with four makeshift nucleic acid testing laboratories set up on Wednesday, each of which can process 120,000 tests a day.
Zhao Wei, a public health professor at Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, said the city was equipped to cope with the level of testing needed.
“Testing is the first step in prevention and control,” Zhao said. “If Guangzhou didn’t have such strong testing capacity, this outbreak would have been more alarming.”
That view was echoed by Yang Zhicong, head of the Guangzhou Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. He told reporters that the strain found in the latest outbreak had a relatively short incubation period and was highly transmissible.
“At present, it seems that the mass screening in Guangzhou is working fine,” he said. “Our modelling has shown that the situation could have been much worse – we estimated we could have had as many as 300 infections if we hadn’t taken these prevention and control measures.”
Other measures taken include travel restrictions imposed across Guangdong – anyone wanting to leave the province must produce a negative test result within 72 hours of departure – and lockdowns are in place for parts of Guangzhou.
According to Lei Chunliang, head of the No 8 People’s Hospital of Guangzhou Medical University, vaccinations have also helped to reduce transmission.
“In this outbreak, four patients were found to have been infected after receiving their first dose of the vaccine but they’re not seriously ill, even though they haven’t had a second dose,” he said. “So the clinical results show that the vaccine has been very effective in preventing serious illness.”
China has stepped up its vaccination drive in recent months, aiming to get 40 per cent of the population – or 560 million people – inoculated by the end of this month. More than 10 million people had been given at least one jab in Guangzhou as of Monday, and the national total was at 704.83 million doses by Wednesday.
Jin Dong-yan, a molecular virologist and professor at the University of Hong Kong, noted that it was still not known how the Delta strain came into the community. He said the statistics suggested it could have been in stealth transmission for some time in Guangzhou before it was detected last month.
“The scale of the outbreak is a little bigger but it is not uncontrollable … it is smaller than the third or fourth wave in Hong Kong. It is expected that [the Guangzhou outbreak] has been going on for a while,” he said. “The elderly woman in Liwan district had been infected for a while and the chain of transmission is still not clear.”
Additional reporting by Holly Chik
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