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A new wave of delta variant infections in China drives fresh lockdowns

Home to the first coronavirus-driven lockdowns more than a year ago, China is imposing new lockdowns and widespread testing in regions where the delta variant is spreading rapidly. Despite the fact only a few hundred cases have been identified so far, Chinese officials are imposing strict measures to combat the virus. Special correspondent Patrick Fok reports from Beijing.

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  • William Brangham:

    China has now imposed new travel restrictions and is testing millions of people for COVID-19 following an outbreak last month that's now spread to at least 17 different provinces.

    The overall number of cases countrywide is still just in the hundreds but the locations of these new infections suggest that this new wave, driven by the Delta variant, is moving quickly and raising concern about China's vulnerability to this highly contagious strain.

    Special correspondent Patrick Fok reports from Beijing.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Authorities aren't taking any chances against China's new outbreak. This residential compound in the capital's Wangjing district has been sealed off. A person that lives here was infected while traveling just over a week ago.

    At the gates, deliverymen line up outside mainly with food supplies and are kept at a safe distance when handing orders over. People inside aren't allowed to leave and will undergo regular testing until health officials decide the area is safe again.

  • Man:

    No, no, no, no.

  • Patrick Fok:

    We tried to get a closer look at what was happening in the compound, but were blocked from filming.

    "Why are you following me?" I said.

  • Man (through translator):

    I'm on Chinese soil. I will do as I please.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Wangjing is one of Beijing's major commercial districts. Nearby, people come from all across the city for work. Security guards at this office block are telling people to show their mobile health certificates and reminding them to wear masks.

    Cleaners are scrubbing the place down, making sure not to leave any spots. For now at least, people here don't seem too worried.

  • Guo Ting Ting, Wangjing Resident (through translator):

    The government's been very strict with putting restrictions in place. And we Chinese are very used to following orders anyway. So, we have been very cooperative when it comes to measures like having a mask on and not visiting hot spots.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Control measures and restrictions have been tightened up at entry points to the capital in particular. People that have traveled to regions designated as medium or high risk are barred from boarding trains to Beijing. Officials have also warned residents against any unnecessary travel out of the city.

    A lot of the control measures for rail passengers were already in place, but they are being beefed up as new cases of infection have been picking up. We can't go inside the station without a ticket, but people have been getting their temperatures and their health certificates checked when they arrive here in Beijing.

    And on the trains, rail attendants are making sure people are wearing their masks properly and also advising people not to walk around or wander around too much on the trains to limit contact between people.

    Local media reports say more than 30 officials in provinces that have been hit by the latest outbreak have been punished for failing to manage the spread of the disease. It emerged last month in the eastern city of Nanjing. Officials say a group of cleaners got infected after working on a flight that had landed from Russia, and that the highly contagious Delta variant had caught airport management off-guard.

    It's now spread to at least 17 of China's 23 provinces. Nanjing's population of 9.2 million is now undergoing mass testing, and hundreds of thousands of people have been placed under lockdown. The airport suspended all departing flights.

    Nanjing native Wu Hauqing, who's a mother, hopes there won't be long-term disruption.

  • Wu Hauqing, Nanjing Resident (through translator):

    If the situation does worsen, then the kids will have to transition to online learning. But I think that's very unlikely. By August 20, we should have a notice from the school advising us about the arrangements.

  • Patrick Fok:

    So far, several hundred new cases have been reported across the country in the last two weeks. That pales in comparison to tallies in other parts of the world. But the Delta strain is testing the efficacy of Chinese vaccines.

    Right now, only shots made by Sinovac and Sinopharm are approved in the country, and authorities admit the antibodies they trigger are less effective against the Delta compared with other variants. China says it's administered more than 1.6 billion doses, enough to cover more than half of its entire population.

    It's not clear if the airport cleaners in Nanjing who got infected were inoculated. Data showed the Delta variant transmits more easily, even among those who've had more effective shots, including those produced by Pfizer and Moderna.

    Ben Cowling, University of Hong Kong School of Public Health: I think what we have seen so far from around the world is that all the vaccines are struggling with the Delta variant. Some may be struggling more than others. But, still, the vaccines are providing against serious disease, so whether it's an mRNA vaccine or an inactivated vaccine, there's still protection against severe disease.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Ben Cowling is an infectious diseases and public health expert at the University of Hong Kong. He says China's zero tolerance strategy to tackle fresh outbreaks, including this latest one, is the right approach for now.

  • Ben Cowling:

    But, even after that, I think we still have to think about the long-term strategy, because it's unlikely the virus is going to disappear. And even in populations that are highly vaccinated there may still be transmission, there may still be the virus, but the impact will be much, much lower.

  • Patrick Fok:

    So far, no deaths linked to the latest spread have been recorded. Some of China's leading scientists say the country needs to move towards ending the zero COVID-19 approach and to limit upheaval to people's lives, particularly in the run-up to the Beijing Winter Olympics early next year.

    But even as this new wave has deepened doubts about the country's ability to stamp out the virus altogether, there's no sign the government plans to abandon its tactics just yet.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Patrick Fok in Beijing.

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