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Checks are made at a temporary laboratory used for Covid-19 testing in Nanjing, Jiangsu province. A cluster at the airport is believed to have led to cases elsewhere in Nanjing as well as in other Chinese cities. Photo: AFP

Nanjing airport coronavirus cluster ‘spreads to 15 other Chinese cities’

  • China’s zero-tolerance approach to pandemic tested with at least 200 people infected by this particular outbreak
  • Officials told to ‘learn lessons’ and ‘remain vigilant’ as number of infections is expected to increase
China’s Covid-19 control measures are under intense pressure after an airport cluster in Jiangsu province’s Nanjing is believed to have led to infections in 15 cities across the country in just over a week.
The spread is being fuelled by the highly infectious Delta variant that has now swept across 132 countries, according to the World Health Organization this week.

China’s zero-tolerance approach to the virus has put tremendous political pressure on the city and governing Jiangsu province, with senior officials admitting to the need to “deeply reflect” on lessons learned and improve their political judgment and understanding of epidemic control.

The Nanjing outbreak has already infected more than 200 people including at least 30 people in 15 other cities, with Beijing and Sichuan province’s Chengdu among them, according to various city statements.

The Nanjing cluster broke out last week with several cleaners at the city’s Lukou International Airport initially affected.

Public health experts believe the latest outbreak is still in the early stages. It is already larger than a May outbreak that mostly affected Guangdong and was the first community spread of the Delta variant in China, with 167 cases reported.

The health experts said more surveillance was needed to find out if there were more cases linked to the airport and if tougher control measures were needed.

Ineffective management has been blamed for the outbreak, thought to be connected to an international cargo flight more than two weeks ago.

Nanjing rolls out more tests as China’s latest coronavirus cluster grows

Nine airport cleaners tested positive on July 20 during routine testing but by then had already infected colleagues and other service staff. At least 173 people in Nanjing have been infected including more than 60 cleaners, according to the city’s health authorities.

“The airport faced problems such as poor supervision and unprofessional management, and prevention and control measures were not implemented effectively,” said the Commission for Discipline Inspection, China’s top anti-corruption body, in a website statement on Wednesday.

The airport did not separate cleaning staff responsible for international flights from domestic ones, exposing a serious lack of day-to-day supervision, the statement said. International and domestic flight operations were mixed together, meaning the virus was imported and has spread in China, it added.

Residents register their details at a Covid-19 test site in Nanjing on Thursday. Photo: Xinhua

China’s Civil Aviation Administration has issued guidelines on Covid-19 for flights and airports, which ban service staff for international flights from using public facilities accessible to passengers. They are also required to not have contact with service staff for domestic flights.

Feng Jun, chairman of Eastern Airport Group which administers the airport in Nanjing, was suspended on July 23 in relation to the outbreak.

On Wednesday a meeting took place with officials including Jiangsu Communist Party boss Lou Qinjian and Wang Hesheng and Lei Haichao, both deputy directors of China’s National Health Commission.

Wang and Lei arrived in Nanjing on Wednesday to advise on epidemic control, according to official media reports.

China hits back at US over WHO coronavirus mission

The meeting called on all departments to “look at the problem from a political perspective” and take political responsibility in preventing the spread of Covid-19 from Nanjing to other cities.

In a meeting on Thursday morning Jiangsu governor Wu Zhenglong told officials that the lesson in Nanjing was “profound” and they must reflect and remain vigilant at all times.

Zhang Wenhong, director of Shanghai’s Huashan Hospital’s department of infectious disease, has called for calm and urged people to take care, as it will take about two weeks to monitor the extent of the Nanjing outbreak.

“All the cases in various cities and provinces have been detected through transmission chains relating to Nanjing airport. There has been no major community spread of cases outside Nanjing, which suggests the outbreak is still controllable,” he wrote on social media on Thursday morning.

“Nanjing has taken stringent preventive and control measures and we should be confident that the outbreak will be contained within weeks if the control measures are effective.”

He said it would take up to two weeks of surveillance to see any cases not directly linked to the airport and that might mean “more decisive measures”.

Long adopting a zero-tolerance prevention and control strategy, Chinese cities have responded to the pandemic with large-scale Covid-19 screening and strict control measures such as contact tracing and lockdowns.

The cities of Zhuhai and Zhongshan in southern Guangdong province quickly launched diagnostic nucleic tests soon after they identified cases of infection linked to the Nanjing outbreak, but have not yet found more new cases.

Ningxiang city in Hunan has also taken similar measures after a 12-year-old boy was identified as a close contact of an infected carrier from Sichuan province.

In Beijing, where a couple were confirmed to have tested positive for Covid-19 after a recent visit to Hunan, nine residential areas near their home were closed down. Residents said they had been told they would remain under observation for at least two weeks and be tested every three days.

Pang Xinghuo, deputy director of the Beijing Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, called on residents not to leave the capital city.

“Summer is the peak season for tourism, travel and gatherings. People travel frequently and are highly mobile but residents must not relax from preventing and controlling the epidemic,” he said.

“We advise people to reduce travel outside the capital in the near future, focusing instead on the suburbs and short and medium trips to the outdoors, in less crowded open areas, country parks and only with families,” Pang added.