COVID: Beijing reports first local Omicron case

The detection of the Omicron strain in Beijing comes as cities across the country ratchet up viral vigilance before the Winter Olympics.

People walk past a market, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic continues in the country, in Beijing, China
People walk past a market as the coronavirus pandemic continues, in Beijing, China [Tingshu Wang/Reuters]

The first locally transmitted Omicron case has been detected in the Chinese capital, Beijing, officials said, weeks before it is due to host the Winter Olympic Games.

State television reported on Saturday that the new COVID infection had been identified as the Omicron strain.

Lab testing found “mutations specific to the Omicron variant” in the person, Pang Xinghuo, an official at the city’s disease control authority, told a news briefing.

The announcement comes a day after the southern city of Zhuhai imposed travel restrictions on residents as a mass testing drive uncovered seven infections.

Millions of people across the country have been ordered to stay at home in recent weeks, with scores of domestic flights cancelled and factories shut down, as the country attempts to control a spate of small coronavirus outbreaks, including several from the Omicron variant, ahead of the Olympics, due to start on February 4.

Despite such restricting measures, Jules Boykoff, professor and chair in the department of politics and government at Pacific University, warned that it’s going to be difficult to contain the spread of Omicron among athletes.

“A lockdown should probably help contain [the spread of the virus] to a certain degree, but we saw similar measures around the Tokyo Olympics which just happened a few months back and still, even with those, more than 800 cases emerged inside the so-called Olympic bubble,” said Boykoff.

“So because of the transmissibility [of Omicron] we have serious problems in our hands concerning the Beijing Olympics,” he added.

One locally transmitted Omicron case was discovered in the capital’s Haidian district, home to many tech company headquarters, city official Pang said at a news conference, a rare breach of Beijing’s tightly-guarded COVID-19 defences.

Authorities are testing the other occupants of the patient’s residential compound and office building, and have restricted access to 17 locations linked to the infected person, Pang said.

Beijing has long barred people from parts of the country that have reported cases, while requiring all arrivals to provide recent COVID-19 test reports. Residents have also been urged in recent weeks not to leave the city for the upcoming spring festival holiday.

On Friday, the coastal city of Zhuhai, which borders the gambling hub Macau, said Omicron had been detected in one mildly ill and six asymptomatic patients.

Zhuhai officials have asked residents to avoid leaving the city “unless necessary”, with those who leave required to show negative COVID test results within the previous 24 hours.

The city launched mass testing for its population of 2.4 million people on Friday after a COVID case was detected in neighbouring Zhongshan earlier in the week.

Businesses including beauty salons, card rooms, gyms and cinemas were ordered to close on Thursday, with officials announcing the suspension of public bus routes in parts of the city.

China has kept COVID-19 cases relatively low throughout the pandemic with its zero-tolerance strategy of immediately ordering mass testing and strict lockdowns when infections are detected.

Harsher lockdowns have been imposed on China’s smaller cities where millions of people have been ordered to stay home and get tested, while economic hubs such as Shanghai and Beijing have locked down and tested only specific neighbourhoods in more targeted efforts.

But the fast-spreading Omicron variant has tested that strategy in recent weeks, appearing in the port city of Tianjin close to Beijing before spreading to the central city of Anyang.

National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng told reporters on Saturday that the country faced a “twofold challenge” from the Delta and Omicron strains of the virus.

He warned that regions that had not yet seen outbreaks “must not relax” their prevention measures and “strengthen risk auditing”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies