Chinese mainland's COVID cases soar to 15k since March 1; situation 'grim' but 'controllable'
Published: Mar 15, 2022 11:05 AM Updated: Mar 15, 2022 08:45 PM
Teachers and students fall in line for nucleic acid tests at a school in Huai'an, East China's Jiangsu Province on March 15, 2022. China reported more than 5,000 new infections, including silent carriers, that day. Photo: VCG

Teachers and students fall in line for nucleic acid tests at a school in Huai'an, East China's Jiangsu Province on March 15, 2022. China reported more than 5,000 new infections, including silent carriers, that day. Photo: VCG

Northeast China's Jilin Province has become a hotspot of China's COVID-19 battle as the province saw a record local COVID-19 cases of 4,067 on Tuesday, with 3,076 confirmed cases and 991 silent carriers. Local officials said the cases haven't peaked and that Jilin faces a "severe and complicated situation," yet they vowed to clear transmissions in communities within a week. 

While several places in China face an onslaught of coronavirus, the viral infection is still controllable, officials said. Chinese drug companies are working round the clock to develop new vaccines, as well as medicines to effectively cut off viral transmission, and pave the way for the future relaxing of policies. 

The National Health Commission said 8,201 people in Jilin were hospitalized as of Tuesday morning, and 95 percent of them are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms. 

Zhang Li, deputy chief of the Jilin provincial health commission, said at a press conference on Tuesday that Jilin, with roughly 24 million people, is set to take "emergency unconventional measures" to push province-wide nucleic tests. The test resources will prioritize the cities of Changchun and Jilin, where the virus is rife. 

A total of five makeshift hospitals have been built in Changchun and Jilin, providing 22,880 beds, said Zhang. 

Han Jun, the provincial governor, said at a Monday conference that everyone in Jilin should receive nucleic tests, all positive cases must be rounded up, and all close contacts should be quarantined. He vowed to cut off the infection within residential communities within a week. 

A Beijing-based immunologist who requested anonymity told the Global Times that reaching that goal is possible but Jilin Province needs to accumulate enough manpower and resources to do the massive tests, round up patients, and enforce COVID-19 measures.

Zhang also admitted that Jilin's medical resources can only be sustained for two or three days and the province is striving to obtain support. 

As of Monday, five provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities have dispatched medical teams and resources to Jilin, according to the Jilin provincial health commission. 

Li Luyao, a medical worker at one of Jilin's makeshift hospitals, told the Global Times that resources in this hospital were strained last week, with a handful of volunteers and nurses taking care of hundreds of people. "Now it is greatly relieved after medical resources and workers from outside Jilin arrived. We are conducting our work in an orderly fashion," said Li. 

Facing with such a severe situation, military region in Jilin Province dispatched 7,000 soldiers to support the COVD-19 work, and 1,200 retired military personnel in Yanbian, Jilin, volunteered to work in quarantine and test sites.

Jilin also announced on Monday that it has purchased 12 million antigen testing kits for its residents. 

Jilin has asked people under home or centralized quarantine to take antigen tests by themselves every day in the first five days of their isolation besides the regular nucleic acid tests. Residents can also buy the antigen self-test kits online or from local pharmacies. Those with positive results will be transferred to fever clinics of designated medical institutions for further nucleic acid tests.

Several residents of Changchun told the Global Times that they are not panicking as the city has constantly issued notices on the epidemic situation and information relevant to daily necessities, helping them know where they could order food and necessities online, which can be delivered. 

A resident surnamed Sun told the Global Times on Tuesday that she has been staying at home for days, and "everything is in order." Her residential compound has organized nucleic acid testing three times, and residents were prepared for the fourth test. 

Residents are forbidden from leaving Jilin effective immediately, the provincial government said on Monday. Jilin has reported about 8,000 COVID-19 cases during this outbreak. 

A makeshift hospital with 1,500 beds is ready to receive COVID-19 patients in Changchun, Northeast China's Jilin Province on March 15, 2022. Photo: VCG

A makeshift hospital with 1,500 beds is ready to receive COVID-19 patients in Changchun, Northeast China's Jilin Province on March 15, 2022. Photo: VCG

Working 24/7

The Chinese mainland reported more than 15,000 domestically-transmitted positive cases from March 1 to 14, affecting 28 provincial-level regions, including metropolises such as Shenzhen and Shanghai, Lei Zhenglong, deputy head of the National Health Commission (NHC)'s Bureau of Disease Prevention and Control, said at Tuesday's press conference. 

Lei said that the epidemic situation is grim and complex, making it difficult to prevent and control. But the COVID-19 affected regions are dealing with the epidemic in an orderly way, making the overall epidemic situation in China still controllable, Lei said.

With stringent virus prevention measures in places where viruses are rife and rounds of nucleic acid tests identifying potential virus carriers, the risk of community spread is expected to be reduced soon, said the Beijing-based immunologist.

According to a simulation model Huang Jianping from Lanzhou University and his team developed, under strict and timely control measures, this wave of outbreaks will be initially controlled by early April, with 35,000 infected. 

As COVID-19 cases sprouted in several Chinese cities, drug companies are working to develop more effective vaccines and medicines against COVID-19. 

Kintor Pharma, a Chinese company whose COVID-19 molecule candidate is under international multi-center Phase III clinical trials, told the Global Times on Tuesday that they are accelerating the trials to make the candidate contribute to the fight against the COVID-19 epidemic as soon as possible.

The Global Times also learned from Beijing-based Global Health Drug Discovery Institute that they are expected to deliver two COVID-19 drug candidates into clinical trials this year. 

China Meheco announced on March 9 in a statement that it had successfully signed with Pfizer a license that enables the former to sell Pfizer's oral drug in the Chinese market, making it the exclusive distributor of the country's first COVID-19 oral drug.

The Pfizer oral drug is yet to be put on shelves in Chinese mainland.

Voices calling for quicker R&D and wider approval of new vaccines also gained momentum among health experts as cases surge in China. China has approved seven COVID-19 vaccines so far. The country also approved in December 2021sales of its first home-developed anti-COVID-19 medication using antibody cocktail therapy. 

A total of 25 vaccine candidates had been delivered into clinical trials and seven of them had obtained emergency use approval or conditional approval for the market, Chinese officials said in late February. 

China's National Medical Products Administration announced on Tuesday that it is accelerating the approval process of COVID-19 medicines and antigen self-test kits.

The NHC has updated its treatment playbook for COVID-19 on Tuesday, saying that cases with mild symptoms should be collectively quarantined and transferred to hospitals until they develop severe symptoms. The renewed plan also includes the antiviral medicine Paxlovid and domestically made monoclonal antibodies BRII-196 and BRII-198 into the treatment of COVID-19.

Zeng Guang, former chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the Omicron variant has brought down sharply the mortality rate and number of severe cases, and he suggested the government publish the two amid the change brought by Omicron. 

There are two major loopholes China needs to fix before gradually relaxing policies. One is that the protection level of vaccines is decreasing over time after vaccination, and the second is that the vaccination rate among elderly people in China is very low, according to Zeng.

China is pushing COVID-19 vaccinations for the elderly, especially for people aged 80 and above, as clinical data showed 65 percent of the severe COVID-19 cases in China are people aged 60 and above, and 65 percent of the severe cases involving seniors are not vaccinated, Jiao Yahui, an official with the National Health Commission, said at Tuesday's press conference. 

Wang Huaqing, chief immunologist at the CDC, said that China is pushing the vaccination of seniors especially those aged 80 and above. More than 200 million people aged 60 and above have completed COVID-19 vaccinations as of Monday.

"After those two loopholes are closed, China can gradually relax its current policies," according to Zeng.