Shanghai, which reported just 16 COVID-19 cases for Wednesday, will conduct mass-testing drives every weekend until the end of July in the latest display of the lengths authorities are going to in order to maintain a zero-tolerance approach to the virus that’s disrupting its economy and leaving it isolated.
A temporary lockdown will also be imposed on residential complexes where a COVID case is detected in the week leading up to the weekend testing, Zhao Dandan, an official with the Shanghai Municipal Health Commission, said at a briefing Wednesday. The lockdown will be lifted once everyone in the compound has been tested, he said.
In an effort to detect cases early and break transmission chains, the city’s residents will need to take nucleic acid tests at least once a week until the end of July, with workers at supermarkets, barbers, drugstores, shopping malls and restaurants required to undergo daily testing. Delivery workers need to take both a nucleic acid and rapid antigen tests every day. Staff at banks, gas companies and industrial entities should also do an antigen test every day.
The latest policy measure in China’s financial hub, which emerged from a bruising two-month lockdown earlier this month, shows the government’s increasing reliance on frequent mass testing to stick to its COVID Zero stance in the face of the hyper-infectious omicron variant. Tens of thousands of lab testing booths are being set up across large cities to allow frequent swabbing to help uncover infection chains early and avert economically-crushing lockdowns. The country reported just 80 local cases nationwide on Wednesday.
Officials are betting the cost of testing and the small-scale disruption to daily life — tests can take just minutes — will be far less than the hit of shutting down cities. Shanghai’s lockdown came after a sluggish initial response to its outbreak and roiled global supply chains as companies like Tesla halted or delayed production for weeks.
But for residents, frequent mass testing means living with the constant threat of being ensnared in a building-specific lockdown should even one positive case be detected. That’s likely to further weigh on consumer spending and risks putting the government’s full-year economic growth target of around 5.5% further out of reach.
It will be more difficult for the service industry to stage a comeback, as “the amount of time that people could’ve spent on consumption — especially on weekends — is now all wasted on queuing,” said Ding Shuang, chief economist for Greater China and North Asia at Standard Chartered Plc.
While neither frequent testing nor lockdowns are ideal, weekly tests to snuff out cases are still “much better” as it can help Shanghai avert the kind of curbs imposed in April and May and smooth production for manufacturers, he said.
With mass testing becoming more frequent, China last month ordered all provinces to lower their test prices by June 10. Shanghai pays 3.5 yuan (52 cents) per person for PCR mass testing, meaning the city may spend as much as 613 million yuan for all of its 25 million residents to go through the planned regimen of weekly tests through the end of July.
The testing plan underscores China’s divergence from the rest of the world, which is largely living with the virus, and shows authorities’ unease with COVID’s intractable community spread despite repeated testing and harsh restrictions. Shanghai reported two new cases outside of government quarantine facilities on Wednesday and sent scores of close contacts to isolate to prevent further spread.
Staunch testing advocate Michael Mina, a former Harvard epidemiologist who was an early proponent of using inexpensive at-home tests to screen populations, says China’s system is going too far. While the approach could temporarily wipe out the virus in the country, it also means the population is cut off from the pathogen, making them more vulnerable once they are exposed, he said.
Beijing has also seen another virus cluster emerging from a bar just days after the virus’ community spread was declared to have been curbed. The bar cluster has led to more than 200 cases and triggered fresh rounds of mass testing in parts of the city.
The capital reported 18 cases for Wednesday, down from 63 on Tuesday. It announced 13 local cases up to 3 p.m. on Thursday, with all infections detected in quarantine. Officials said they will test some groups more frequently, including deliverymen and employees of schools and hospitals.