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China is facing omicron testing weeks before the Beijing Olympics

TAIPEI (AP) -- Access to most of Taiwan's major cities was suspended on Thursday as China attempted to control an outbreak the highly contagious omicron variant. This is a test for its COVID-19 policy, which China considers "zero tolerance", and the country's ability to host the Winter Olympics.

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China is facing omicron testing weeks before the Beijing Olympics

Tianjin is a port and manufacturing hub with 14 million inhabitants. As part of a strategy to eliminate every case of the virus, the government has imposed lockdowns and other restrictions in a dozen cities. The outbreak in Tianjin, a port and manufacturing center with 14 million people, is especially alarming.

Beijing has been the home of senior politicians and the seat of government since the outbreak. This made Beijing a particularly vulnerable target. The stakes are higher now, with the Games opening in Beijing in less than three weeks and China's pride at stake.

Tianjin suspended all train, taxi, bus, and ride-hailing services from other cities on Thursday. Highways were closed and flights and high-speed trains services cancelled earlier. To leave the city, people had to submit negative virus tests and get special permission.

More than 20 million Chinese are under lockdown elsewhere in China, including in the western province of Xi'an. Some are forbidden from leaving their homes.

This is all part of China's sweeping restrictions on movement that it has repeatedly placed since early 2020. The unprecedented step of sealing off 11,000,000 people in Wuhan (where the virus was first discovered) and other areas of Hubei province, began it all.

These measures, along with mass testing and digital surveillance on people's movements have prevented the virus spreading to a national epidemic. The nation's vaccination rate is now at 85%.

Others have abandoned a similar zero tolerance approach and decided to live with it while minimizing its worst effects.

China continues to persist, but it may find it more difficult as the omicron virus is more contagious and can evade vaccines. This challenge is coming as China welcomes thousands of visitors from around the world to the Olympics which begin Feb. 4.

"I believe it is a crucial juncture in China's history." "Can it stop omicron?" Dali Yang, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Chicago, said.

China reported 124 domestically transmitted diseases on Thursday, with 76 cases in Henan and 41 in Tianjin.

The total number of cases and deaths reported by authorities since the pandemic started has been reported at 104,379, which is the same figure that was reported for months.

Japan experienced a large outbreak of the delta variant during the Tokyo Olympics. However, the Olympic measures were mostly effective in stopping the transmission, according to Kenji Shibuya (research director at Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research, and a public health expert).

Beijing's rules will be more strict than Tokyo's.

The Games are conducted in a closed loop system, which is designed to keep the outside world from athletes, journalists, staff, and officials at the Olympics.

Special vehicles will be used to transport those inside the Games bubble between competition venues and hotels. Anybody who leaves the enclosed environment will need to be quarantined for three weeks.

Even police went so far to warn anyone in an accident with an Olympics vehicle that they should avoid contact with the people aboard and wait for a special team.

These measures should be able prevent the spread of virus within the bubble according to Kei Saito (a University of Tokyo virologist).

However, outside it might be quite different.

Saito stated that omicron is three-to four times more transmissible as delta. "It's nearly impossible to stop the spread of Omicron," said Saito.

According to Dr. Vineta Bal, an Indian immunologist, there are no widespread epidemics in China, which means that the Chinese population is protected by vaccines, and not antibodies from previous infections.

The Chinese vaccines that are being made domestically are generally less effective than the ones used widely in other countries like Moderna or Pfizer.

Despite these difficulties, China has not given up on its efforts in stopping the spread of the virus.

On Wednesday, Tianjin carried out mass testing again. The government requested that people wait at home until they get a negative result. Communities in Beijing also asked residents to report any recent visits to the port city.

According to a notice from the city government, trucks transporting food and medical supplies will be allowed in Tianjin. However, drivers were instructed to wear masks and take other precautions to prevent transmission of the virus.

Volkswagen AG, an automaker, said that it had shut down two factories in the area on Monday. Employees have been tested twice. It released a statement saying that it hoped to restart production soon.

However, Tianjin's disruptions are still less than other cities that are fully locked down.

Yu Xuan, who works in Tianjin at a university, said that "Everything is fine. The supermarkets and restaurants can be gone to as normal."

Another resident, Wang Dacheng, stated that his father, who has difficulty walking, was able get tested in their apartment.

Wang stated, "Everyone has been very calmed and collected."

People living in apartments in Xi'an (a city with 14 million inhabitants) and in the central province Henan complained that they ran out of food due to restrictions.

The organizers are determined that the Games will continue despite the pandemic, controversies and even a U.S.-led diplomatic ban over allegations of human rights violations against mostly Muslim minorities in China’s northwest.

During an inspection trip last week, President Xi Jinping stated that "the world is turning its attention to China." "And China is ready."

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