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May 18, 2020

Top China expert warns of potential second virus wave


May 18, 2020

BEIJING: China faces a potential second wave of coronavirus infections due to a lack of immunity among its population, its government’s senior medical adviser has warned.

After months of lockdowns and curbs on travel China has largely brought the virus under control, but fears of a second wave have risen as clusters have emerged in northeast provinces and in the central city of Wuhan.

"The majority of... Chinese at the moment are still susceptible of the Covid-19 infection, because (of) a lack of immunity," Zhong Nanshan, the public face of government’s response to the pandemic, told CNN.

"We are facing (a) big challenge," Zhong added. "It’s not better than the foreign countries I think at the moment." Zhong, who helped expose the scale of the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), also said authorities in ground-zero Wuhan had under-reported cases during the early days of the pandemic.

"The local authorities, they didn’t like to tell the truth at that time," said Zhong, who was part of a team of experts sent to Wuhan to investigate the outbreak.

"I didn’t believe that result (the number of cases reported) so I (kept) asking and then, you have to give me the real number," he said. But he added he believed data published after Wuhan was locked down in late January, and when the central government took control of the response, "will be correct".

The novel coronavirus has killed at least 309,296 people, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP, with scientists around the world racing to find a vaccine.

Zhong cautioned that a "perfect" vaccine for a disease that the World Health Organisation (WHO) says may never disappear could take "years".

Meanwhile, shoppers flocked to Thailand’s top-end malls on Sunday, eager for retail therapy as shopping centres reopened in a gradual easing of restrictions to revive the virus-ravaged economy.

Hundreds of masked customers passed through temperature checks, disinfection stations, and had their photos taken before they were allowed into plush malls in Bangkok. In the main downtown shopping district, Central World touted a "new normal" of doing business on posters, while screens on the mall’s exterior declared "We are open".

The shopping centre relaunch comes with Thailand’s infection numbers slowing in recent weeks -- authorities announced three new cases on Sunday, with the total at just over 3,000. Shopper Taewich Penpattakul said he was "not really worried" about contracting Covid-19 because of Thailand’s low caseload. "Mentally, it makes me feel better that all the malls are now opened," the 23-year-old told AFP.

Customers and businesses were advised to adhere to restrictions, which include limits on the number of people allowed in retail spaces and a ban on alcohol sales in restaurants. Cinemas, however, remain closed.

The food court -- often the most popular part of Thai shopping centres -- filled up quickly, and a mobile robot roamed around monitoring people’s temperatures. Tables had plastic dividers set up to encourage social distancing, while one restaurant placed cardboard dinosaurs opposite customers to indicate the place was not to be used.

The government is also urging retailers and shoppers to check in on a digital platform when entering malls -- it will send a message if a coronavirus case is discovered in a specific store.

"We would have to wait until a few weeks to see if this is a good idea and if they (the government) can still control Covid-19," said Jason Noel, 25, who was eyeing up some purchases.

Shopping centres -- along with other public spaces like stadiums, gyms and parks -- were ordered to close in mid-March as Thailand entered a state of emergency to curb the spread of infections.

But retailers have felt the slump since January when an economic malaise settled over a kingdom heavily dependent on spending from Chinese tourists.

Thailand on Saturday extended a ban on inbound international flights until June 30. Its economy is forecast to contract by more than 6 percent -- the sharpest plunge since the crisis of 1997.

Meantime, tucked away in a Moscow office block, the laboratory could pass unnoticed were it not for the line of people waiting, as Russia rolls out mass testing for coronavirus.

While those in line are observing social distancing, they do not have symptoms of coronavirus. They have come to the laboratory, part of a commercial chain called Gemotest that carries out a variety of medical tests, seeking confirmation that they do not have the virus.

"The lockdown is going to be relaxed in the next few weeks and I will start my work again which requires close contact with my clients. I have to know what my state of health is," says Ildar Giniyatullin, a 40-year-old masseur, as he waits for a nurse to take a saliva sample with a cotton swab.

With more than 270,000 cases, Russia is currently in second place in the world and Moscow is the country’s worst-affected city.

The authorities say their strategy is mass screening of the population and boast of having carried out 6.6 million tests since the start of the pandemic.

The aim is to find people who test positive without symptoms, estimated to be just under half of those infected in Russia. The authorities also say the plan has helped keep down the mortality rate, which is remarkably low at less than 2,600 people, although critics have cast doubt on this figure.

Russians can use a number of ways to get tested, whether at a laboratory, at work or at home.

The Internet giant Yandex offered a free testing service at home for a few weeks and says it tested 20,000 people. It has now halted this service, saying free tests are now easily accessible elsewhere. "The more people get tested, the easier it will be to halt the epidemic, also the economy will suffer less and there will be more opportunity to take appropriate measures," says Dmitry Gordeyev, a specialist in diagnosing infectious diseases at Gemotest.

While Moscow has extended its lockdown for most people to May 31, some sectors have been allowed to work, such as industry and construction. In some other regions, life has almost returned to normal and the national football championship is set to resume at the end of June.

Gemotest, which has branches across Moscow, offered people standard medical tests before the coronavirus outbreak -- a popular service as they work faster than state hospitals.

Gemotest started offering coronavirus tests after being supplied with kits by the country’s main virus research centre in Siberia, Vektor, which are classed as highly reliable. Now its laboratories are checking 9,000 tests a day and offer results within three days.

In a Moscow suburb, a startup called Sistema-Biotech, which is part of a large Russian holding, AFK Sistema, is working on a separate project aimed at speeding up mass screening.

The startup has around 30 staff working in a swiftly assembled laboratory in a previously disused hospital building. They say the test system they have developed will detect a possible virus infection within 30 minutes with equipment that fits into a doctor’s bag.

If the express test gives an abnormal result that is likely to be the virus, the client would be asked to undergo fuller testing in a laboratory.

"The aim is to sieve through the people hoping to get tested so they don’t overwhelm laboratories, where the tests are very effective but complex," says the head of the startup, Dmitry Mordvintsev.

The express test does not require a laboratory or a medically qualified tester. The startup hopes to make it available from June and produce up to 2 million a month to supply hospitals and large businesses.

"Mass public testing has to be done using simple methods, that’s why this test was developed," Mordvintsev says.

On Friday Moscow also launched a mass campaign to test the public for coronavirus antibodies with the aim of building some "herd immunity". Around 70,0000 people will be selected at random every three days for tests. The Russian authorities say the scale of this endeavour will be "unique worldwide."