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China ends 2021 with highest weekly COVID-19 cases since taming original epidemic

China ended the final week of 2021 with its biggest tally of local COVID-19 cases for any seven-day period since it contained the country’s first epidemic nearly two years ago.

The National Health Commission reported on Saturday 175 new community infections with confirmed clinical symptoms for Dec. 31, bringing the total number of local symptomatic cases in mainland China in the past week to 1,151, driven mostly by an outbreak in the northwestern industrial and tech hub of Xian.

China has maintained some of the toughest COVID-19 measures in the world even as cases fell sharply earlier this year.

The deepening outbreak in Xian, a city of 13 million, will likely firm the resolve of authorities to accelerate their efforts to curb virus transmission when cases emerge. The city has reported 1,451 local cases since Dec. 9, the highest tally for any Chinese city in 2021.

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Xian has been under lockdown for 10 days as of Saturday.

Forestalling major outbreaks in 2022 is important in a year when Beijing will host the Winter Olympic Games and a once-every-five-years Communist Party Congress, where President Xi Jinping will likely secure a third term as party secretary.

The emergence of the highly transmissible omicron variant, which is already spurring many nations to backtrack or suspend reopening plans, will also drive Beijing to stick to its high vigilance against the virus. China has reported a handful of imported omicron cases and at least one locally transmitted case.

Since August, China has aimed to get any outbreak under control within about two weeks, much shorter than the four to six weeks in earlier battles against sporadic flare-ups that occurred after the initial nationwide epidemic, according to the
National Health Commission.

The province of Yunnan, which shares an international border with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, reported new local symptomatic cases on 92 out of 365 days last year, or 25 percent of the time, more often than any other province, autonomous region or municipality.

Shaanxi province, whose capital is Xian, reported new local symptomatic cases on 30 days.

XIAN LOCKDOWN

The Xian outbreak is yet to see a significant decline in cases. Officials said the virus had spread quietly in the city before strict curbs were imposed.

The outbreak, which also led to cases in other cities including Beijing, could be traced back to a flight arriving from Pakistan, but it is unclear how it then spread to local communities.

Many people have been forbidden from leaving their residential compounds, but a city government official said on Friday curbs would be loosened in less risky compounds when the time was right.

Postgraduate student Li Jiaxin, 23, said nobody can leave the campus of her university. She spent New Year’s Eve with her three roommates and was unable to meet with her boyfriend and family.

“I may be what you would consider a person with a strong sense of ritual, so I still feel a little sad that we are not together at this time,” she said.

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Kim Jong Un carries coffin at North Korean military officer’s funeral

A maskless Kim Jong Un was one of the pallbearers at the state funeral for a top military officer, North Korean state media reported Monday, days after Pyongyang claimed the country's Covid-19 outbreak was now under control.

Kim on Sunday attended the funeral of Hyon Chol Hae, a Korean People's Army marshal who reportedly mentored the North Korean leader to take over from his father Kim Jong Il.

The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) released photos of Kim, not wearing a face mask, hoisting up Hyon's casket along with other regime officials, who were masked.

Hyon died of multiple organ failure at the age of 87, according to KCNA.

The North Korean leader has put himself front and centre of his country's Covid response, blaming lazy state officials for worsening the Omicron variant-fuelled outbreak.

Over the weekend, KCNA said the epidemic was now “being stably controlled”, and reported the death toll “sharply decreased day by day”.

Experts question the official claim and tally, given that the impoverished country has one of the world's worst healthcare systems and no Covid-19 drugs or mass testing ability.

It has not vaccinated any of its roughly 25 million people, having rejected jabs offered by the World Health Organization.

For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.

North Korea announced its first coronavirus case on May 12, despite a two-year blockade maintained since the start of the pandemic.

Pyongyang reported 167,650 “fever” cases on Monday via KCNA, a notable drop from the peak of around 390,000 reported about a week before.

It reported one more death and claimed the fatality rate for the “fever” was 0.002 percent.

State media reports do not specify how many of the cases and deaths have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Pyongyang has so far not responded to an offer of help from Seoul, according to South Korea's unification ministry.

During his visit to Seoul at the weekend, US President Joe Biden said Washington had also offered Covid-19 vaccines to Pyongyang but “got no response”.

Despite the virus outbreak, new satellite imagery has indicated North Korea has resumed construction at a long-dormant nuclear reactor.

The US and South Korea have both warned that Kim is poised to conduct another nuclear test, which would be the country's seventh.

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North Korea’s fever cases under 200,000 for second day amid silence on aid offer

North Korea's daily fever cases stayed below 200,000 for a second day in a row, state media said on Monday, as Pyongyang remained silent on South Korean and US offers to help fight its first confirmed COVID-19 outbreak.

The COVID wave, declared on May 12, has fuelled concerns over a lack of vaccines, inadequate medical infrastructure and a potential food crisis in the country of 25 million.

US President Joe Biden said on Saturday that Washington had offered COVID-19 vaccines to China and North Korea, but “got no response.”

North Korea reported 167,650 new patients suffering from fever on Monday and one more death. More than 2.33 million of the 2.81 million cumulative cases reported since late April had recovered as of Sunday evening, the North's state news agency KCNA said. The official death toll stands at 68.

For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.

While staying silent on the offer for help, North Korea has boasted of a “favorable turn” in the country's virus situation.

“The crisis and responsibility awareness is further enhanced in every region, sector, workplace and post across the country to maintain the favorable turn in the epidemic prevention work and all inroads of the epidemic are checked through the strict execution of regional and unit lockdown and blockade measures,” the KCNA said.

Such COVID-19 restrictions may be playing a role in North Korea's lack of response, a senior US administration official said Sunday.

Apparently deprived of testing supplies, North Korea has not confirmed the total number of people testing positive for the coronavirus. Instead, health authorities report the number with fever symptoms, making it difficult to assess the scale of the COVID wave, experts have said.

Authorities have distributed food and medicine across the country, with military medics deployed to help distribute drugs and conduct exams.

KCNA said pharmaceutical factories “are speeding up the production,” but did not elaborate which medicines were being produced.

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Health

Beijing city reports 63 new local COVID-19 cases over 24 hours

Beijing reported 63 new domestically transmitted COVID-19 infections during the 24 hours to 3 p.m. (0700 GMT) on Saturday, a disease control official at the Chinese capital said.

Of the infections, 56 were found in controlled areas and seven during community screening tests, Liu Xiaofeng, deputy director at Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control, told a news briefing.

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The city has recorded 1,399 COVID infections since April 22, Liu said.

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