The world’s longest COVID-19 free streak is over

The first locally transmitted case of Covid-19 in more than eight months was reported in Taiwan, ending what was the world’s longest stretch without a domestic infection and providing a reminder of the virus’s ability to outfox even the most successful efforts to contain it.

A 30-year-old woman was confirmed to have caught Covid-19 in Taiwan, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said at a briefing in Taipei Tuesday. While it has seen cases in travelers arriving from outside, Taiwan’s last infection within the community was April 12.

The woman came into repeated contact between Dec. 7 and Dec. 12 with a pilot from New Zealand who had caught Covid-19 in the U.S. before traveling to Taiwan, according to Chen. The government will fine the Eva Airways Corp. pilot up to NT$300,000 ($10,000) for failure to report details of his close contacts and steps.

Health officials have identified 167 other people the newest case came into contact with before she was isolated, the Centers for Disease Control said in a statement. The patient is an employee of an affiliate of Quanta Computer Inc., which said it has tightened virus-control measures and asked close contacts of the employee to quarantine at home.

Police tracked down the latest case after investigating all people the pilot came into contact with before testing positive. Two other confirmed cases contracted the virus from the pilot while working with him on a flight from the U.S. to Taiwan on Dec. 15. Eva Airways shares dropped 6.7%, the most since March, while the Taiwan’s benchmark stock index lost 1.4% Tuesday.

Success Story

The re-emergence of a local outbreak threatens to derail one of the standout success stories in the global fight against the pandemic. Taiwan currently holds the No. 2 spot in Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking, a measure of the best places to be in the Covid-19 era.

Taiwan has managed to keep its total number of cases to 770, with just seven deaths, through a combination of restricting travel into the island early in the outbreak and implementing a strict quarantine and contact tracing strategy.

Yet many regions that showed initial success in fighting off the virus, from Thailand to South Korea, are now facing their worst outbreaks as cases are spiking around the globe with the onset of winter.

“The pandemic today outside the borders of Taiwan is worse than ever,” said Raina MacIntyre, professor of global biosecurity at the University of New South Wales. For places like Taiwan that have prevented transmission, “the international border is the weak link which may let infection in.”

The continued spread of the coronavirus worldwide has meant Taiwan’s authorities have had to remain on their guard. Since the last case of domestic transmission in April, more than 300 cases have been brought in by people returning from overseas.

The absence of the virus has allowed for life to continue pretty much as usual in Taiwan, an island about 80 miles off the southeastern coast of China. Offices, schools and businesses have largely remained open as the government avoided implementing a lockdown, though mask-wearing is still encouraged. Taiwan’s successful handling of the outbreak meant it dodged the economic damage seen elsewhere, putting it among the few places to still be predicting growth this year.

The domestic travel industry has seen something of a boom, with Taiwan’s 24 million people unable to travel overseas for vacations due to the restrictions. Meanwhile, external demand for Taiwan’s technology — it is home to Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., a key iPhone manufacturer, and a swathe of chipmakers — remains strong as people purchase laptops and tablet computers to work and study from home.

The economy will likely expand around 2.3% this year, according to economists surveyed by Bloomberg, in stark contrast to most other developed economies around the world which are expected to fall into recession.

New Waves

Highly contagious and manifesting in some with little or no symptoms, the virus has re-emerged in a number of places where it was thought to have been largely eliminated.

Thailand, the first country to record a Covid-19 case outside of China, hadn’t reported more than 100 infections in any day since early April, until a new outbreak was found on Dec. 17. The Southeast Asian nation reported 427 new cases on Tuesday, as a cluster in a province outside of Bangkok expanded around workers at seafood processing plants.

South Korea has repeatedly prevented the coronavirus from spreading uncontrollably, applying its elite testing-and-tracing practices that have become a global model for managing the pandemic. Now that country is being tested as infections topped 1,000 for five consecutive days through Sunday.

“The key lesson is that unless this problem is dealt with on a global level, then human-to-human transmission is always going to be probable,” said Nicholas Thomas, associate professor in health security at the City University of Hong Kong. “The danger is that as cases drop and countries seek to open their borders – either widely or in the form of travel bubbles – places that were previously disease free are going to be re-exposed.”

–With assistance from Jinshan Hong.

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