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China battles multiple COVID-19 outbreaks, driven by stealth omicron

Workers line up for COVID test outside an office building on Monday in Beijing.
Ng Han Guan
/
AP
Workers line up for COVID test outside an office building on Monday in Beijing.

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Chinese authorities reported 1,337 locally transmitted cases of COVID-19 across dozens of mainland cities Monday as the fast-spreading variant commonly known as "stealth omicron" fuels China's biggest outbreak in two years.

The vast majority of the new cases were in far northeastern Jilin province with 895. Shenzhen reported 75 new cases as residents began the first of three rounds of mass testing. Officials on Sunday locked down the city, which has 17.5 million people and is a major tech and finance hub that neighbors Hong Kong.

The surge on the Chinese mainland is infecting people in cities ranging from Shenzhen to Qingdao on the coast, to Xingtai in the north and the numbers have crept steadily higher since early March. While the numbers are small relative to numbers reported in Europe or in the U.S., or even the city of Hong Kong, which had reported 32,000 cases Sunday, they are the highest since the first big outbreak of COVID-19 in the central city of Wuhan in early 2020.

China has seen very few infections since its strict Wuhan lockdown as the government held fast to its zero-tolerance strategy, which is focused on stopping transmission of the coronavirus as fast as possible, by relying on strict lockdowns and mandatory quarantines for anyone who has come into contact with a positive case.

The government has indicated it will continue to stick to its strict strategy of stopping transmission for the time being.

On Monday, Zhang Wenhong, a prominent infectious disease expert at a hospital affiliated with Shanghai's Fudan University noted in an essay for China's business outlet Caixin, that the numbers for the mainland were still in the beginning stages of an "exponential rise." Shanghai confirmed 41 new cases on Monday.

Much of the current outbreak is being driven the variant commonly known as "stealth omicron," or the B.A.2 lineage of the omicron variant, Zhang noted. Early research suggests it spreads faster than the original omicron, which itself spread faster than the original virus and other variants.

"But if our country opens up quickly now, it will cause a large number of infections in people in a short period of time," Zhang wrote on Monday. "No matter how low the death rate is, it will still cause a run on medical resources and a short term shock to social life, causing irreparable harm to families and society."

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