BREAKING: China locking down again as Delta variant sweeps country

Huang Jingwen/Xinhua via AP

This seems unusual for a country that has bragged about its vaccines and effectiveness in corralling COVID-19. The Associated Press reports that the Delta variant has now created outbreaks in half of China’s provinces and in 35 cities. As a result, Beijing has once again imposed shutdowns and mandatory testing regimes:

China suspended flights and trains, canceled professional basketball league games and announced mass coronavirus testing in Wuhan on Tuesday as widening outbreaks of the delta variant reached the city where the disease was first detected in late 2019.

While the total number of cases is still in the hundreds, they are far more widespread than anything China has dealt with since the initial outbreak that devastated Wuhan in early 2020 and over time spread to the rest of the country and the world.

China has not eliminated but largely curbed Covid-19 at home with quick lockdowns and mass testing to isolate infected people whenever new cases pop up. Most previous outbreaks didn’t spread far beyond a city or province. This time, cases have been confirmed in more than 35 cities in 17 of China’s 33 provinces and regions.

The cities of Nanjing and Yangzhou have canceled all domestic flights, and Beijing has halted long-distance trains from 23 stations. The Chinese Basketball Association said that matches of its men’s professional league would be suspended because of the pandemic.

How seriously should we take China’s reported-cases claims? If all they’re seeing is a caseload in the hundreds, they shouldn’t need this kind of wide and economically damaging response. Their totalitarian surveillance state should make contact tracing relatively easy, and containment of a few hundred cases across such a wide field shouldn’t be impossible without these kinds of broad actions.

This looks like a larger outbreak than this report suggests, although it’s worth noting that Australia is currently locking down again over even fewer cases. Australia hasn’t had universal access to effective vaccines yet, however, whereas China has insisted that it has succeeded in vaccinating wide swaths of the country. As of yesterday, China’s national health commission claimed it had administered almost 1.7 billion doses to its populace, enough to fully vaccinate nearly 900 million people in a population of 1.4 billion, which amounts to 64.3% — nearly enough to achieve herd immunity.

But immunity is the question. China’s using its own vaccines in this effort, at the same time that they’re exporting them to other countries in an effort to deploy “vaccine diplomacy.” Western vaccines have performed very well against the Delta variant, including here in the US, despite some media hysteria over an exceedingly small percentage of breakthrough cases. If China’s vaccines performed as well against COVID of any variety, Delta should be a low risk with almost 65% of their total population inoculated, especially given the lower risks among children who might not yet be inoculated at all. We already know from data in other countries — notably Chile, whose inoculation rate with China’s vaccines equals China’s own — that the Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines are not effective.

This amounts to an admission from China on the same point. It’s possible that Beijing is overreacting, but this is not a regime noted for its over-sensitivity to human suffering and human rights. This lockdown will raise all of these questions around the world, and Beijing knows it. If they’re doing this anyway, one has to presume that China’s leadership is much more afraid of its protection against COVID-19 than they’ve let on.