As the Chinese Communist Party began its annual Congress Thursday, known as the “Two Sessions,” authorities sealed off three northeastern cities in two provinces in a lockdown aimed at containing a new outbreak of what may be a mutated form of the SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The city of Shulan was classified as “high risk” last week after a cluster of infections was traced to an individual with no known history of exposure to the virus, and no travel history. The temporary closure in the city was increased by Monday with “hundreds” of residents under medical quarantine according to the China Daily. One day later, the city of Jiaohe in Jilin province. according to multiple reports that emerged this week from The Guardian, Reuters and The New York Times.
The new outbreak was detected in clusters of infections in the northeastern provinces of Jilin (population 27 million) and Heilongjiang (population 38 million) along the border with Russia and North Korean.
In the province of Jilin, there was an outbreak of some 133 confirmed locally transmitted COVID-19 cases and two deaths so far, according to a report published Wednesday by Xinhua. In addition, there were four new confirmed cases that were reported between midnight Monday and shortly after 1 am Tuesday.
Critical care medicine expert Qiu Haibo, a member of the country’s National Health Commission expert group, told state broadcaster CCTV late Tuesday the incubation period of the virus in northeastern Chinese patients appeared to be longer than the seven to 14 days of those in Wuhan, where the first outbreak emerged last November, Reuters reported.
It’s not clear, however, whether any of the COVID-19 cases in Shulan reported by Xinhua included cases of the “different” types of virus reported by Qiu.
“The longer period during which infected patients show no symptoms has created clusters of family infections,” he said.
At least 46 cases of the new virus were reported over the past two weeks in the city of Shulan – home to some 600,000 people – as well as Jilin city and Shengyang. Of those, 26 patients have been hospitalized; 10 percent are listed in critical condition, according to a report in the Japan Times.
Patients in the northeastern clusters are carrying the virus for a longer period, Qiu said, and taking longer to recover as defined by a negative nucleic acid test. He said the patients rarely had fever, and tended to suffer damage to their lungs, but not to multiple organs such as the heart, kidneys and intestines.
Genetic sequencing has showed a match between the cases in northeastern China and those in Russia, Qiu said.
The outbreak has sparked a new lockdown over a region of tens of millions residents, with train services halted, schools closed and residential compounds sealed off.
But unless medical professionals will be allowed this time to speak freely to one another — within China and with their peers outside the country as well — to exchange information and give and get advice on how to grapple with the new challenges they are facing, China may simply be facing another battle in its war with the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.