Mainland China has reported its first case of the highly transmissible Omicron variant in the northern city of Tianjin, posing what could be the biggest threat to date to the country’s zero-Covid strategy.
The Chinese authorities reported on Monday that the Omicron case was detected on 9 December from an overseas returnee, who showed no symptoms on arrival. The patient is being quarantined and treated in a designated hospital.
At the same time, the eastern province of Zhejiang has been battling a rise in new infections of the Delta variant in recent weeks.
Cases of Omicron – first detected in South Africa and labelled a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization – have now been reported in more than 50 countries. At least one person in the UK has died with Omicron, Boris Johnson said on Monday.
Experts say that if not properly controlled, the variant could upend Beijing’s strategy to fully contain the pandemic. Since last year, the method has guaranteed Chinese citizens a largely virus-free life, but it has also been met with criticism by some medical professionals, who argued for an alternative plan to coexist with the virus with a sufficient vaccination rate.
The arrival of the Omicron variant also coincided with Zhejiang – a province of 65 million people – battling against its first domestic cluster outbreak this year.
Among the 80 new locally transmitted cases with symptoms in mainland China on 12 December, 74 were identified in Zhejiang. In October, the province reported just one local case.
The outbreak in Zhejiang, a manufacturing hub and home to the e-commerce company Alibaba, led more than a dozen publicly listed companies to halt production on Monday. Their shares fell sharply as a result.
The companies said they would comply with the virus control measures imposed by the local government, which will decide when production can resume.
Among the worst affected cities in Zhejiang province is Shaoxing. Since 5 December, 123 of the 192 cases detected in the province were from the city of 5 million. A mass testing programme is under way.
Early this month, the Chinese region of Hong Kong – which runs a separate health system from the mainland – reported its first cases of Omicron. On Monday, the territory reported two additional cases of the variant, bringing the total to seven.
Hong Kong’s health authorities said that both cases were imported from the UK, where the health secretary, Sajid Javid, told MPs on Monday that Omicron now represents 20% of Covid cases in England.