Omicron risk and record Delta outbreak threaten to burst China’s ‘pre-Game’ Olympic bubble

On Tuesday, China officially opened its bubble for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, setting the stage for thousands of medal hopefuls and other participants to descend on what has been the most sealed-off country in the world since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“China has vowed to present the world with streamlined, safe, and splendid Games,” China’s state-run newspaper, the China Daily, proclaimed on Tuesday.

But the opening of the bubble is coinciding with the global rise of Omicron as well as China’s worst COVID-19 outbreak since the early days of the pandemic in the winter and spring of 2020, a double-pronged threat that poses one of the most severe challenges yet to China’s uncompromising pursuit of a COVID-zero strategy.

The Olympic bubble

The Olympic Games are set to begin on Feb. 4, but the “pre-Game” bubble will allow all Olympic-related personnel coming from abroad to enter the country without quarantine.

The 2,000 or so athletes as well as some 25,000 other Games participants, including coaches, media members, and foreign dignitaries, will be sequestered away from China’s general public in a bubble, or “closed loop management system,” as Beijing 2022 organizers call it.

The bubble consists of the Olympic village and sports venues, as well as hotels, restaurants, and transportation options like buses and trains that only athletes and other Olympics-related staff will be able to access. China has banned foreign spectators from the Games but will allow domestic fans to watch the Games while keeping a distance from those in the bubble. Chinese workers staffing the Games, meanwhile, will have to quarantine before rejoining the general population.

Chinese officials acknowledge that the influx of foreign visitors will likely bring infections.

“There will definitely be infections and there could be a chance of a small-scale cluster outbreak happening,” Huang Chun, a virus control official for the Beijing Olympics, said at a briefing in December.

But the real risk for China is the potential for the highly transmissible Omicron variant to escape the bubble and seep into the general population. Nicholas Thomas, a professor of global health governance at the City University of Hong Kong, says amid all of China’s precautionary measures there is still a “reasonable chance” that Omicron could leak outside the bubble given just how quickly Omicron appears to spread.

Xi’an outbreak

An Olympic-related outbreak threatens to exacerbate China’s most severe COVID outbreak in months.

On Tuesday, China recorded 95 new COVID-19 cases in Xi’an city, the capital of China’s central Shaanxi province, taking Xi’an’s total COVID tally to over 1,600 cases in the past month. The outbreak marks the largest community spread in a city in China since the early days of 2020.

The case count pales in comparison to the record 1-million-plus cases the U.S. logged on Monday alone. The U.S.’s single day tally is 10 times the total cases China has recorded since the beginning of the pandemic. But in COVID-zero China, even one case is too many.

Since Dec. 13, Xi’an has instituted a lockdown, requiring its roughly 13 million residents to be largely confined to their homes in conditions reminiscent of what Wuhan residents experienced after the virus initially broke out two years ago.

Xi’an’s inability to swiftly contain the outbreak prompted China’s central government to fire Xi’an’s deputy mayor and punish over two dozen other officials in charge of Xi’an’s pandemic response.

Some residents have reported on Chinese social media that they are bartering their belongings for food due to closed shops and stay-at-home orders.

On Monday, China announced that a second city—Yuzhou in China’s central Henan province—would go into lockdown after reporting three asymptomatic cases in the past three days. Yuzhou will shut down schools, public transportation, malls, and all other public venues while the city’s 1.2 million residents are encouraged to leave their homes only for necessary trips like buying groceries.

Chinese officials have traced outbreaks in Xi’an and Yuzhou to Delta infections, and it is unclear what additional measures governments could take to contain an outbreak driven by the faster spreading Omicron variant.

“Xi’an really does represent the absolute limits as to what China can do [to contain an outbreak],” says Thomas. He explained that one or multiple Omicron outbreaks could overwhelm China’s otherwise airtight response.

The thousands of athletes, media, and support staff entering China’s borders for the Olympics will mark the first time in two years that visitors will enter the country without undergoing hotel quarantines. If Omicron slips through the cracks due to the Olympics or otherwise, experts say China may be headed for a lockdown-filled 2022.

China has fully vaccinated 86% of its population, among the highest vaccination rates in the world, but it is unclear how many of those vaccinated have gotten booster shots. China has also largely relied on inactivated vaccines from Chinese makers Sinovac and Sinopharm that appear less effective against Omicron even after a third dose than mRNA vaccines from makers Pfizer and Moderna.

The Eurasia group wrote in a report published on Monday that the combination of Omicron’s high transmissibility and China’s widespread use of less effective vaccines makes it likely that China’s COVID-zero policy will break down in the coming year.

“China’s policy will fail to contain infections, leading to larger outbreaks, requiring in turn more severe lockdowns,” the Eurasia group wrote.

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