Why a New Virus Cluster in China Is Triggering Alarms
An employee sprays disinfectant on a table at the K11 Art House cinema operated by UA Cinema Circuit in Hong Kong, China. (Photographer: Roy Liu/Bloomberg)

Why a New Virus Cluster in China Is Triggering Alarms

(Bloomberg) --

A cluster of Covid-19 cases in China’s Rust Belt region has intensified worry over a second wave of coronavirus infections. The central and local leadership have instituted strict measures, including halting public transport services for more than 100 million people and sealing off residential compounds in some cities, as Chinese President Xi Jinping called for strengthened controls. While many other countries are still grappling with the first wave of outbreak, this re-emergence in China, while still small, is putting the world on alert.

1. How did the new cluster erupt?

The first case was reported May 7 in the northeastern province of Jilin, on the border with Russia and North Korea, and as of May 21 had spread to at least 46 people, all linked with each other. Officials have yet to identify “patient zero,” but suspects include a woman who works in the laundry at a police station in the city of Shulan, and may have been in contact with one or more people from Russia, which is behind only the U.S. in number of confirmed cases. One of China’s top doctors said patients in Jilin appeared to be asymptomatic for a longer period than was usual in Wuhan, where the coronavirus emerged last year, but didn’t elaborate on what those findings were based on. He told state television the cases in the first two weeks seem to show damage mostly in the lungs, with only 10% developing into critical cases.

2. What’s the response been?

The northeast cluster is tiny compared to the earlier outbreak in central Hubei province, where Wuhan is located. (More than 68,000 people were infected there; its 11-week lockdown ended April 8.) Yet Beijing is taking the outbreak just as seriously. Jilin city is already setting up an emergency response that could turn two stadiums into hospitals in 24 hours. The Chinese government is eager to show stability as its annual political meeting is set to convene this week, with top leaders gathering to assess economic growth in the wake of the pandemic.

3. Why is this outbreak such a worry?

The pathogen’s makeup. These coronavirus cases are showing a different gene sequence from the outbreak in Hubei, while identical with imported cases from Russia. Changes in the virus’s genetic sequence could make it harder for officials to detect. It also would create hurdles for vaccine research and development for pharmaceutical companies that are racing to stop the spread of Covid-19. Researchers worldwide are studying whether the virus is mutating in a significant way to become more contagious, but the likelihood of that has been called overstated in some early research.

4. What’s the economic impact?

The relatively poor region is often viewed as China’s Rust Belt due to the decline of heavy industry there such as automobiles. In 2019, total gross domestic product of the three provinces in the region -- Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang -- stood at less than half of prosperous Guangdong province to the south, home to many giant tech companies and factories. The virus outbreak could add further pressure to the economic redevelopment campaign for the area that central government has been focusing on for years.

5. What does this show about China’s approach?

Since the Wuhan lockdown, China has been aggressive in virus testing, and is signaling that it will react with a hammer to every cluster, implementing stricter measures as needed to contain spread. That is a different approach from other economies such as South Korea and Hong Kong, which have refrained from any lockdown despite new clusters found in clubs and medical centers. Such harsh methods would be more complicated, however, if infections appear in more economically important provinces or the top cities.

The Reference Shelf

  • More QuickTake explainers on the science behind a second wave, sizing up China’s vaccine promise, and an overview of the pandemic.
  • A look at other small oubreaks in Asia, including again in Wuhan.
  • Bloomberg News tracker on coronavirus drugs and vaccines.
  • Subscribe to a daily update on the virus from Bloomberg’s Prognosis team.
  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a coronavirus web page.

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