China steps up border control in race to contain fast-spreading COVID-19 Delta variant

Echo Xie, South China Morning Post

Posted at Aug 06 2021 12:56 PM

China has stepped up border controls and restricted outbound travel in an effort to minimise domestic transmission of the Delta variant of the coronavirus, which has already spread to 17 Chinese provinces and more than 130 countries worldwide.

The reinforcement of border controls came after Chinese immigration authorities vowed to tighten restrictions on entry and exit permits and to impose a temporary freeze on issuing passports for “non-urgent or unnecessary travel”.

Despite mounting calls for China to open its borders, the country has been pressing ahead with a “zero tolerance” approach to contain the spread of Covid-19 – by implementing strict lockdowns and restrictions at home and imposing stringent entry rules at the borders.

Only 335,000 passports were issued across the country in the first half of this year for people who study and work overseas or travel for business, accounting for just 2 per cent of the total for the same period in 2019, according to the National Immigration Administration.

Limiting the issuance of passports is one of the restrictive measures China has undertaken to minimise the risk of coronavirus outbreaks. The aim is to control the number of imported cases while authorities try to boost vaccination rates at home to reach herd immunity.

More than 1.7 billion vaccine doses had been administered as of Wednesday, according to the National Health Commission, but it is still a long way to herd immunity, which would require 83 per cent of the country’s population of 1.4 billion to be inoculated, as respiratory experts have pointed out.

Business travellers are asked to take multiple Covid-19 tests and undergo between 14 and 21 days of quarantine.

Meanwhile, customs authorities have carried out “close management” for frontline staff, who have been asked to get vaccinated and also get tested every day, an official told a press conference on Thursday.

Other stringent measures implemented by customs include checking health declaration codes, monitoring temperatures, collecting testing samples, and carrying out virus genome sequencing, in a bid to prevent the outbreak crossing borders, the official said.

Some Chinese cities have previously seen local clusters caused by imported cases of the Delta variant, including the southern cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, and the city of Ruili on the China-Myanmar border.

The State Council’s joint Covid-19 prevention and control mechanism team sent 20 working groups to key port cities to plug loopholes and offer guidance, Mi Feng, spokesperson for the National Health Commission (NHC), said on Thursday.

But what is making prevention and control harder are the different sources of the Delta variant, which has now spread to 17 provinces and infected more than 500 people in China since a cluster was first reported at an airport in Nanjing last month.

Gene sequencing results of a local coronavirus case in Shanghai showed it had no relation to the genome of the latest cases in central China’s Zhengzhou and east China’s Nanjing cities, but had high levels of similarity with the imported Delta variant strain, Wu Jinglei, director of the Shanghai Health Commission, said on Wednesday.

National health officials have confirmed that the cases in Zhengzhou also had no relation with the clusters in Nanjing.

“The genetic sequencing analysis showed high similarity with an imported case admitted to hospital. It is a Delta variant but it has no relation with the cases in Nanjing,” NHC official Guo Yanhong said.

Zhengzhou had reported 112 infections as of Thursday after it rolled out mass testing to all its 11 million residents.

Guo said the increasing number of infections in the city reflected local health authorities’ and medical institutions’ lack of knowledge about handling the pandemic, as well as insufficient understanding of imported risks and the complexity of the issue.

He Qinghua, another NHC official, said the pandemic could be controlled in China but the job was becoming more complex and harder because of the various sources of imported cases.

“Other places may discover new outbreaks. Local authorities should strengthen monitoring and control any outbreak at an early stage,” He said.

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