Omicron Deepens Uncertainty Surrounding Beijing Olympics

The Winter Olympics are three weeks away, but tickets have yet to go on sale. Airlines are changing their schedules, confusing travel. Now, a wave of coronavirus outbreaks in China – including some locally transmitted cases of the rapidly spreading Omicron variant – is adding to the uncertainty ahead of the Games in Beijing.

As of Wednesday, more than 20 million people remained confined to their homes in at least five cities in China. Of particular concern to authorities is a recent outbreak of violence in Tianjin, a port city just 110 kilometers from Beijing, which Chinese state media have previously likened to a “ditch” protecting the country’s capital.

Authorities have yet to determine the source of the Tianjin outbreak which has infected 137 people, at least two of them with the Omicron variant. A local health official said the virus appeared to have spread in the community “for some time.” Authorities in Tianjin ordered a second round of mass tests on the 14 million residents on Wednesday.

The upsurge in infections even before the arrival of thousands of athletes, journalists and officials underscores the challenge Chinese organizers face in trying to organize the Games while respecting Beijing’s “zero Covid” standards. The country is one of the few in the world to continue to eliminate the virus, despite the severe measures needed and the cost imposed on the economy and on people’s lives.

Even before the emergence of Omicron, the Beijing Games were never going to be a typical affair. The organizers of the health protocols drawn up in the fall had already made it clear that the Games, which are set to begin on February 4, will be the most extraordinarily small large-scale sporting event since the start of the pandemic.

Unvaccinated people will have to spend their first 21 days in Beijing in solitary quarantine. Fully vaccinated participants will need to stay in a tightly managed “closed loop” bubble from arrival in Beijing until departure. They must also present two negative tests before their arrival, take daily tests and submit health reports to authorities using a mobile app.

Despite the recent epidemics, organizers appear determined to hold the “green, safe and simple” Games that Chinese authoritarian leader Xi Jinping called for last week. Officials said authorities so far had no plans to lock down Beijing, or to change the Olympics schedule or virus-fighting measures in response to Omicron.

“Whatever difficulties and challenges we may encounter, our determination to organize a successful Games as planned remains firm and unwavering,” Zhao Weidong, spokesperson for the organizing committee, said on Tuesday.

But some basic questions remain, including how to allow fans to attend. Authorities said only residents of mainland China would be allowed as spectators, and they should only clap – not clap.

At the Tokyo Games last summer, more than 400 infections were recorded in the bubble; China is making great efforts to limit the risk of an epidemic. Anyone in the bubble who tests positive should stay in a public high-security hospital or quarantine facility until two lab tests – also known as PCR tests – at least 24 hours apart are no longer found. trace of the virus, which may take weeks.

Officials also acknowledged residents’ concerns that infections could occur inside the bubble and then spread outside. Beijing road authorities on Sunday urged residents to stay clear of any collisions involving closed-loop bubble vehicles, saying a special ambulance unit would respond to such crashes.

For the Chinese government, the stakes are high. Beijing’s zero tolerance approach relies on mass testing, strict border controls, extensive surveillance, contact tracing, quarantines and extensive lockdowns to bring sporadic outbreaks under control.

The strategy has at times drawn criticism, such as in Xi’an city last month, when residents complained of food shortages and denial of emergency medical care. But he retains broad public support. And Beijing has used its success to assert the superiority of its top-down authoritarian system over Western democracies, which have struggled to contain epidemics.

This month, China ordered the cancellation of more than two dozen scheduled flights from the United States after several passengers tested positive for the coronavirus after arriving in China. The government also recently tightened its already onerous restrictions on inbound travelers. From Thursday, travelers from the United States, for example, will be required to present at least two negative tests and monitor their health for seven days in their departure city before flying to China.

Yanzhong Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University, said that for Beijing, the Olympics was an opportunity not only to showcase China’s sporting achievements, but also to validate its “zero Covid” approach. virus.

“If they can achieve this without causing major epidemics, it would be another gold medal that China would be happy to claim,” Huang said.

Going back to zero local transmissions before the Olympics can be difficult. Anyang, a city of five million people in central China’s Henan Province, was locked on Monday after registering 58 cases. At least two cases of Omicron have been traced to a student who traveled from Tianjin on December 28, suggesting that the variant had already been circulating in the two cities for nearly two weeks.

And the source of some of the recent outbreaks remains unclear. In Shenzhen, authorities blamed contaminated packaging of imported products for the recent spread of the Delta variant, prompting city officials on Monday to warn residents not to purchase goods from high-risk countries. (Studies show that transmission of the virus from packaging is extremely rare.)

Recognizing the challenge, some Chinese health experts have recently given up on focusing on the “zero Covid” goal.

“At the moment, we do not yet have the capacity to guarantee that there are no local cases,” said Liang Wannian, senior official of the National Health Commission of China, according to state media. “But we have the ability and the confidence to quickly extinguish local cases when we find them. “

Even with China’s formidable contact tracing capacity and high vaccination rates, Omicron could prove particularly elusive, given the short window in which positive cases can be detected. Studies have also suggested that the two main Chinese vaccines, manufactured by Sinovac and Sinopharm, are not as effective in preventing infection with the Omicron variant. (Chinese authorities have so far only approved Chinese vaccines.)

With the Olympics on the horizon, the Beijing government has urged people to refrain from unnecessary travel to the capital. City health officials are also asking residents to report to authorities if they have been to areas recently affected by epidemics. This week, Beijing was also one of many Chinese cities where authorities said residents should stay put during the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday, typically the busiest travel week of the year.

“Zero Covid is getting harder and harder for Chinese authorities to achieve, but it’s still achievable,” said Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong. “It just comes at a high price – for people’s everyday lives and for the economy. “

The organizers of the games are hoping the technology could help minimize human interactions. They tested robots that brew coffee, make deliveries, and clean surfaces – R2-D2 lookalikes that spray disinfectant.

There’s even Xiaobai, or “Little White,” a waist-high robot that can detect when someone isn’t wearing a mask and harass the ruler in accordance. Equipped with six wheels and a disinfectant dispenser, Little White is ready for the challenge of the Games, suggested Li Xinglong, one of its inventors, in an announcement on the official Beijing Winter Olympics website. .

“Little White,” Mr. Li said, “is not afraid of the cold”.

Amy Chang Chien and Li You contributed to the research.

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