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Beijing begins fresh round of COVID-19 tests as Shanghai postpones crucial exams

China’s capital Beijing kicked off a fresh round of mass testing for COVID-19 on Saturday and shut more bus routes and metro stations, as it seeks to avert the fate of Shanghai, where millions of residents have been locked down for over a month.

The draconian movement curbs on Shanghai, an economic and financial hub, have caused frustration among its 25 million residents and triggered rare protests over issues such as access to food and medical care as well as loss of income.

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While some people have been let out for light and air in recent weeks, residents for the most part say they still cannot leave their housing compounds.

Shanghai cases have fallen for eight straight days and the city says its outbreak is under effective control, allowing it to shut some of the makeshift hospitals it raced to build as case numbers ballooned.

But authorities have also indicated that a full easing is still far off and warn against complacency to stick to China’s zero-COVID goal.

In a Saturday announcement underscoring that expectation, Shanghai officials postponed the “gaokao” university entrance exam for city to early July. It took place in June last year and the last time that happened was in 2020, during the initial virus outbreak.

The city’s top Communist Party official, Li Qiang, a close ally of President Xi Jinping, told a Friday government meeting that it was “necessary to issue military orders at all levels, and take more resolute and powerful actions to overcome the great war and great tests,” according to an official statement.

The number of infections in Shanghai outside areas under lockdown – a gauge of whether the city can further reopen – fell to 18 on Friday from 23 the day before. Total new cases declined slightly to around 4,000, data released on Saturday showed.

Shanghai is also building thousands of permanent PCR testing stations, in line with other cities, as China looks to make regular testing a feature of everyday life.

Sales tumble

China’s COVID policy is increasingly out of step with much of the rest of the world, where governments have eased restrictions, or dropped them altogether, in a bid to “live with COVID” even as infections spread.

But Chinese leaders this week reiterated their resolve to battle the virus and threatened action against critics of their strict measures. Beyond Shanghai, dozens of cities have imposed full or partial lockdowns, relaxing and tightening curbs at various times.

The measures are exacting a mounting economic toll that has fueled complaints from global industry groups and businesses at home.

China’s auto association on Friday estimated that sales in April dropped 48 percent year-on-year, as zero COVID-19 policies shut factories, limited traffic to showrooms and put the brakes on spending in the world’s largest car market.

In Shanghai, although the government has provided guidelines on how companies can restart operations, a survey conducted of Japanese firms in late April found the majority were still struggling to do so due to the onerous requirements.

Since Friday, organizers have cancelled, postponed or relocated a slate of major international sporting events set to take place in China in the second half of the year, including the Asian Games set for Hangzhou in September and Diamond League athletics meets originally scheduled for Shanghai on July 30 and Shenzhen on August 6.

The moves, which followed a government meeting on Thursday chaired by Xi that called for a doubling down on the zero-COVID approach, defy a global sporting calendar that has largely returned to normal.

Beijing is striving to avoid an explosion in cases like that of Shanghai by conducting rounds of mass testing, banning restaurant dining-in services in multiple districts and has shut more than 60 subway stations, about 15 percent of the network.

On Saturday, it kicked off the first of three new rounds of daily testing in its biggest district, Chaoyang, home to embassies and large offices, and said residents in other areas where cases had been reported needed to take tests on the weekend.

The city reported 45 new symptomatic COVID-19 cases for May 6, down from 55 cases a day earlier. It recorded 8 asymptomatic cases, which China counts separately, versus 17 a day earlier.

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China’s Xi warns against ‘herd immunity,’ says COVID-Zero policy works best

President Xi Jinping declared COVID-Zero the most “economic and effective policy for China,” during a symbolic visit to Wuhan in which he cast the strategy as proof of the superiority of the country’s political system.

Xi said during a trip Tuesday to the central Chinese city where the virus first emerged in late 2019 that relaxing COVID-19 controls would risk too many lives in the world’s most populous country. China would rather endure some temporary impact on economic development than let the virus hurt people’s safety and health, he said, in remarks reported Wednesday by state media.

For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.

“Our country has a large population, such strategies as ‘herd immunity’ and ‘lying flat’ would lead to consequences that are unimaginable,” Xi said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

The benchmark CSI 300 equities gauge extended losses, ending Wednesday’s session down 1.5 percent, its biggest decline in more than a month. The offshore yuan, which initially declined as much as 0.2 percent on Xi’s comments, pared losses to 6.7032 per dollar as of 4:45 p.m. local time.

The comments represent the clearest sign yet that Xi was willing to expend the political power he’s amassed over the past decade defending a policy that has required locking down large swaths of the country’s most economically important cities for weeks on end. The president characterized Covid Zero as connected to the Communist Party’s “nature and purposes.”

“We have the leadership of CCP, we have the communities as the foundation at grassroots level, we have the capability and strength to implement dynamic-clearance policy until reaching the final victory,” Xi said, using China’s preferred term for the approach.

Growth Target

The comments come in the run up to a pivotal party congress later this year, in which Xi is expected to secure a precedent-breaking third term in power. By increasingly tying COVID-Zero to his own prestige as a leader, Xi is making it riskier for critics of the policy to speak up and also raising the political stakes for himself.

China’s Covid outbreaks and an ongoing property market slump have put the government’s economic growth target of around 5.5 percent out of reach. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg predict growth of just 4.1 percent for this year.

“Xi Jinping’s comments in Wuhan suggest that China’s top leadership sees COVID as a legitimate reason to miss the economic growth objectives and that China’s overall COVID stance is unlikely to change any time soon,” said Louis Kuijs, Asia Pacific chief economist at S&P Global Ratings. “In turn, that means that new outbreaks will continue to pose serious risks to the economy and that economic sentiment will continue to be affected.”

In Wuhan, Xi said China “needs to promote the stable and healthy development of the economy as much as possible at the same time as carrying out the work of pandemic prevention.” Xi also said the country needed to be more self-reliant on developing cutting edge technologies, especially in chip industry and high-end manufacturing, saying the country must “firmly hold the lifeline of science and technology in its own hands.”

Testing Protocol

Xi’s remarks come after the country managed to quell its most serious outbreaks since the Wuhan crisis: both Shanghai and Beijing reported zero local cases on Monday, for the first time since February 19, with the financial hub in particular emerging from a bruising two-month lockdown.

The omicron outbreak has tested its playbook, but China appears to have emerged from that with a new protocol for maintaining COVID-Zero indefinitely. While an easing of travel quarantine buoyed markets on Tuesday as a sign of reopening, officials in the same document codified a standardized approach to mass testing and lockdown that local officials should follow.

China’s 1.4 billion people live in a new normal of constant testing and tracking. In the capital of Beijing, residents are required to show a green code on a mobile app that tracks their health status, and take a COVID-19 test every three days to enter any public venue, including restaurants, shops, and mass transportation. Even kids over age three must be tested to play in the park.

Xi’s comments were likely to dash hopes that China was cautiously embarking on an exit plan.

“We would rather temporarily affect a little economic development, than to risk harming people’s life safety and physical health, especially the elderly and children,” he said Tuesday.

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US FDA advisers meet to discuss design of future COVID-19 vaccines

Outside advisers to the US Food and Drug Administration are meeting on Tuesday to discuss whether to change the design of COVID-19 vaccines in order to combat future variants of the coronavirus.
The updated shots are likely to be redesigned to fight the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, experts say. The exact composition of the retooled shots and whether they also will include some of the original vaccine alongside new components will be considered at the meeting.

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Pfizer Inc, Moderna Inc and Novavax Inc are scheduled to present data at the meeting. All three companies have been testing versions of their vaccines updated to combat the BA.1 Omicron variant that was circulating and led to a massive surge in infections last winter.
Both Moderna and Pfizer with partner BioNTech have said that their respective redesigned vaccines generate a better immune response against BA.1 than their current shots that were designed for the original virus that emerged from China.

For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.

They have said that their new vaccines also appear to work against the more recently circulating BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, even though that protection is not as strong as against BA.1.
Experts also want to know if the new shots will increase protection against severe disease and death for younger, healthier people or merely offer a few months additional safeguard against mild infection.
Scientists who have questioned the value of booster shots for young and healthy people have said a broad campaign is not needed with an updated shot either.
Others experts have championed any additional protection new vaccines may offer.

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Hong Kong steps up COVID-19 testing as details of President Xi’s visit emerge

Hong Kong’s government stepped up its COVID-19 testing program and advised against large family gatherings, days before landmark celebrations to mark 25 years of Chinese rule and a reported visit by President Xi Jinping.

Testing over the next few days will focus on high-risk districts where infections have broken out and coronavirus has been found in sewage samples, the government said in a statement. Compulsory tests have already been ramped up in these areas in a bid to stop the virus spreading.

For the latest headlines, follow our Google News channel online or via the app.

Hong Kong has resisted tightening social curbs in recent months despite rising cases. That’s put the city’s pandemic approach at odds with Xi’s flagship COVID-Zero policy.

The ramping up of the testing program comes before an anticipated two-day visit by Xi for the anniversary festivities.

According to the South China Morning Post, Xi will begin his trip to Hong Kong on June 30 before the 25-year celebrations on July 1. Thousands of police officers will descend on the West Kowloon high-speed rail terminus, where Xi and mainland officials are due to arrive from Shenzhen, the newspaper said. Xi won’t stay overnight in Hong Kong, according to the report.

He will attend a banquet hosted by outgoing Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam at her official residence on Thursday, according to the Post.

For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.

It will be Xi’s first visit to the city in five years, and his first outside the mainland since January 2020, as his pandemic policy has largely closed China’s borders.

The Hong Kong government said the virus has recently showed up in sewage from Wan Chai, Sha Tin and Yau Tsim Mong districts and residents have been given rapid testing kits. The government will continue to give out free tests to those aged 60 and above, adding to the 11 million kits already distributed, it said.

The city won’t conduct mass-testing like neighboring Macau, HK01 reported, citing incoming health chief Lo Chung-mau’s discussions with politicians.

The government urged people to be vigilant. They should “undergo testing frequently, continue to observe the social distancing measures, avoid going out as much as possible and taking part in crowded or unnecessary activities or gatherings,” it said.

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