Chinese authorities are increasingly concerned about a pronounced uptick in coronavirus cases in the country, which has led to 22 million people being put into a fresh lockdown.
A big worry is many of the cases are relatively close to Beijing and its 21 million residents.
On Monday, 103 new coronavirus cases were reported on the Chinese mainland, the first time the country has seen a daily case rise in triple digits for five months. The rolling seven day average of cases if now four times that of mid-October.
The recent surge appears to be fuelled by so-called “silent infections” – asymptomatic spread – chiefly in rural areas. The outbreaks have been labelled “grim” and “complex” to contain.
It comes just as officials from the World Health Organisation (WHO) are due to arrive in the country to investigate the causes of the global pandemic.
Outbreaks have occurred in China throughout 2020 after the initial wave. But virus watchers have two large fears about the new infections.
Firstly, it appears to be caused by a more transmissible strain of coronavirus. Secondly, Lunar New Year celebrations are imminent where people flock, in their hundreds of millions, back to their families, often in rural areas across the country.
It’s estimated around 400 million train trips could be taken in China during the holiday period which kicks off in early February. Each day during New Year, more than 10 million Chinese had been expected to hop on a long distance train.
There is a concern COVID-19 could be picked up and then transported back to the big cities.
People are being urged not to travel home during the holiday period. However, many Chinese were locked down last Lunar New Year 2020, so are eager to see loved ones.
An article in China’s Global Times newspaper said the country was facing a rising outbreak that was focused in the Hebei province that surrounds Beijing and Heilongjiang province in the country’s far north east.
“Chinese health experts warned that the coronavirus spreading appears to be more infectious and transmissible, and asymptomatic infections, especially silent infections in villages, has become a new and big challenge for China,” the article reads.
The virus is said to have been quietly spreading with people showing no symptoms until the illness was finally picked up.
“Asymptomatic infections may trigger an epidemic, because it depends on how early we find those silent virus carriers,” Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said.
The current crop of cases is far lower than the height of the first wave when 5000 daily cases nationwide was the norm and, on a single day in mid-February, 14,000 people in China were diagnosed.
But it’s worrying authorities, nonetheless.
In frank comments from the media, which is under the watchful eye of the Communist Party, the Global Times said “silent infection was a major problem facing China” as there was no capacity to regularly test people who either had no symptoms or weren’t in high risk categories.
Efforts to detect the virus were also being hampered by more limited access to healthcare in rural areas.
“A weak and slow COVID-19 response at the grassroots level, which includes a failed surveillance and reporting system in villages, has spawned the recent domestic cluster infections,” the paper said.
The China Daily said the situation in Hebei was “complex and grim” with cases in surrounding areas now traced back to an outbreak in the city of Shijiazhuang.
In that city, 11 million people are locked down with 22 million in Hebei overall.
“Resolute measures should be taken to prevent the further spread of the epidemic to Beijing and neighbouring areas, top officials said at a conference held on Monday night,” according to the China Daily.
However, health authorities are bullish they can get on top of the outbreak within a month.
There has been much discussion in China about the so-called UK variant of the disease which could be up to 70 per cent more transmissible.
Although it is no more deadly, the sheer number of people catching it in the UK has led to more severe cases and immense pressure on hospitals.
There has been no confirmation yet that the current outbreak in China has a link to Europe.
However, the Associated Press has reported that China is strictly controlling all research into the origins of coronavirus and the WHO scientists’ visit will be tightly controlled by Beijing.