Coronavirus, Wuhan Image ID: 108296823 (L) Image credit: keitma / 123rf

The epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak was Wuhan, China. Image credit: keitma / 123rf

Sticking to its “zero COVID” policy, China has announced its biggest city-wide lockdown since the COVID outbreak began more than two years ago. The city of Shanghai will be locked down in two stages over nine days while authorities carry out COVID-19 testing.

( www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-60893070)

The important financial hub has battled a new wave of infections for nearly a month, although case numbers are not high by some international standards.

Authorities had so far resisted locking down the city of some 25 million people to avoid destabilising the economy. But after Shanghai recorded its highest daily number of cases on Saturday since the early days of the pandemic, authorities appear to have changed course.

The lockdown will happen in two stages, with the eastern side of the city under restrictions from Monday until 1 April, and the western side from 1-5 April.

Public transport will be suspended and firms and factories must halt operations or work remotely, authorities said. The city government published the instructions on its WeChat account, asking the public “to support, understand and cooperate with the city’s epidemic prevention and control work”.

Other lockdowns during the pandemic have affected entire Chinese provinces, though people could often still travel within those regions. But Shanghai, due to its high population density, is the largest single city to be locked down to date. It is China’s commercial capital and by some calculations the biggest city in the country – but is now one of the worst-hit areas as China fights to contain a resurgence of the virus with Omicron, leading to a spike in new cases.

Officials had until now said the eastern Chinese port and financial hub must keep running for the good of the economy. The staggered approach to this lockdown means half the city will remain functioning at a time.

Millions of residents in other Chinese cities have been subjected to citywide lockdowns, often after a relatively small number of Covid cases.

Wuhan was sealed off at the very outset of this pandemic. Before Christmas it was Xi’an. Now China’s commercial and financial capital is being shut.

Just a few days ago officials here said Shanghai was too big and too important to lock down. The question now on many residents’ lips will be whether nine days is enough.

The recent surge in cases in China, although small compared to some countries, is a significant challenge to China’s “zero-Covid” strategy, which uses swift lockdowns and aggressive restrictions to contain any outbreak.

The policy sets China apart from most other countries which are trying to live with the virus.

But the increased transmissibility and milder nature of the Omicron variant has led to questions over whether the current strategy is sustainable in the long run.

Some Shanghai residents have complained about the seemingly endless cycles of testing, suggesting that the cost of zero-COVID had become too high.

China’s national health commission reported more than 4,500 new domestically transmitted cases on Sunday. China reported almost 5,000 COVID-19 cases on Friday, as authorities continued to battle an outbreak of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Following the death of a nurse in Shanghai who was denied hospitalization after an asthma attack, many are angry that China’s COVID responses appear to be causing more deaths than the virus itself.

Domestically acquired COVID-19 infections jumped from 175 on 7 March to 3507 on 14 March. Asymptomatic infections, which China tracks separately, surged as well. The government has put 37 million people in the southern city of Shenzhen and the north-eastern province of Jilin under lockdown orders, with many elsewhere facing travel and other restrictions. www.science.org/content/article/news-glance-asia-s-covid-19-surge-melting-winter-sea-ice-and-inflammatory-arxiv-papers

Meanwhile in Hong Kong the “zero covid” policy seems to be having an impact exactly opposite to what’s expected. Nearly half the foreign businesses are planning to relocate. Foreign businesses have for decades reaped the benefits of setting up shop in Hong Kong, a historically stable, expat-friendly finance hub at the doorstep of mainland China. But lately, as Beijing has tightened its grip on the former British colony, those firms are increasingly eyeing the exits. Nearly half of all European businesses in Hong Kong are considering relocating in the next year, according to a new report. Companies cite the local government’s extremely strict COVID-19 protocols that mirror those on the mainland. Among the firms planning to leave, 25% said they would fully relocate out of Hong Kong in the next 12 months, while 24% plan to relocate at least partially. Only 17% of the companies said they don’t have any relocation plans for the next 12 months.

www.cnn.com/2022/03/24/business/hong-kong-expats-covid-restrictions/index.html

Elsewhere, South Korea and Vietnam, which managed to keep cases very low during the first 2 years of the pandemic, have also seen explosions due to Omicron, with South Korea now reporting more than 300,000 cases daily and Vietnam more than 200,000. Many European countries that recently relaxed or abandoned control measures are recording COVID-19 rebounds as well, with double-digit percentage increases in infections over the past 2 weeks.

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The virus is up to its old tricks, as it has the world at large  ever since the pandemic hit more than two years ago. It’s mutating pretty effectively. Barely two months after the Omicron wave, U.S. epidemiologists are already warning of another swell in the pandemic.

Though COVID case numbers are falling in many countries, scientists warn that the quiet may soon give way to another surge, driven by an Omicron subvariant, BA.2. It is already fuelling an increase in cases in 18 countries, including Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

BA.2 is more contagious than the version of Omicron that spread through last winter. And BA.2 is quickly becoming more prevalent in some places. But whether that turns into a wave — as some countries in Europe are seeing — is hard to know for sure.

Some experts in the U.S predict that a BA.2 wave could come as soon as April, or perhaps later in the spring or in the early summer.

Another possibility is that BA.2 slows down a decline in cases or produces only a slight uptick — but not a big wave. That could be because so many Americans got infected with the first version of Omicron over the winter, so there’s more immunity in the population.

There’s also some optimism that even if there is a more sizable bump in cases, because of all the immunity in the population, hospitalisation rates may not go up so much, according to The New York Times. That’s been true for some European countries where cases have been rising for a few weeks, but so far it hasn’t been accompanied by a surge of hospitalisations.

There have been some lab studies that suggested that vaccinated people infected with Omicron produce reasonably high levels of antibodies that probably protect against BA.2. And estimates out of the U.K. suggest that vaccines seem to protect about as well against BA.1 as they do against BA.2. The big variable is how long that protection, especially from a previous infection, is going to last.  

Biogen last week published data from two pivotal clinical trials of its controversial Alzheimer’s drug, Aduhelm, more than 2 years after it first announced their outcomes. The company faced criticism for both the long delay and its choice of outlet—the low-profile Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease. The journal’s editor-in-chief, Paul Aisen, is also the second author on the study and has consulted for Biogen. (Aisen says he was not involved in the review of Biogen’s manuscript or the publication decision, and the company is one among many he has consulted for.) The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the drug against the recommendation of an independent advisory group. FDA cited evidence that the treatment removes Alzheimer’s-associated protein plaques from the brain, even though only one of the two large trials showed clinical benefits from Aduhelm over a placebo. www.science.org/content/article/news-glance-webb-telescope-looking-sharp-omicron-s-burden-and-statues-female-scientists/////

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Lalita Panicker is Consulting Editor, View, Hindustan Times, New Delhi