Fresh China cluster raises fears for pandemic control

Laurie Chen and AFP bureaus
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A new cluster of cases in Beijing has been linked to the Xinfadi wholesale market

A new cluster of cases in Beijing has been linked to the Xinfadi wholesale market (AFP Photo/GREG BAKER)

Lockdowns were imposed in parts of Beijing on Saturday to try and prevent the spread of a new coronavirus cluster, highlighting the challenges that lie ahead even for places where outbreaks are under control.

It has fuelled fears of a resurgence in local transmissions in China, where the outbreak curve has been months ahead of the rest of the world, and comes as many European nations move to further lift their own lockdowns.

The pandemic is still surging elsewhere, particularly in Latin America, with Brazil claiming the unenviable position of having the second-highest virus death toll behind the United States.

The respiratory disease was first detected in central China late last year, believed to have jumped from an animal to humans at a market that sold wildlife.

China largely eliminated transmission within its borders through hyper-strict lockdowns that were emulated across the globe.

But on Thursday Beijing announced its first infection in two months and went on to report 50 more cases linked to the large Xinfadi meat and vegetable market, which provides much of the capital's food supply.

Authorities have raced to contain the outbreak, ordering residents in 11 nearby residential estates to stay home, announcing mass testing, establishing a "wartime mechanism" and deploying hundreds of police officers.

"Everyone's very stressed right now," an elderly driver told AFP outside a fenced-off neighbourhood in Fengtai district of southwest Beijing.

"There are cases living in there, it's real."

- More than 426,000 dead -

Worldwide, the pandemic has killed more than 426,000 people and infected more than 7.6 million, while wreaking large-scale economic devastation.

The number of global infections has doubled in slightly over a month -- with one million cases recorded in just the last nine days -- and the virus is spreading most rapidly in Latin America.

Mexico and Chile recorded their worst days yet during the pandemic on Friday, while Brazil reported 909 new deaths, putting its total at 41,828, surpassing Britain's toll.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who threatened last week to quit the WHO over "ideological bias", has dismissed the virus as a "little flu", and berated state officials for imposing lockdowns.

But world health officials have warned that the virus is far from contained.

The WHO said this week the pandemic is accelerating in Africa, and on Saturday Botswana's capital Gaborone locked down after new cases were detected.

In the US, which has confirmed the most COVID-19 deaths with over 114,000, more than a dozen states, including two of the most populous, Texas and Florida, reported their highest-ever daily case totals this week.

In Russia, which has the world's third highest number of cases, authorities more than doubled the official death toll for April after changing how the country classifies fatalities.

There is still no treatment for COVID-19, but pharmaceutical group AstraZeneca said it has agreed to supply an alliance of European countries with up to 400 million doses of a possible vaccine.

The development of a vaccine could be completed by the end of the year, German government sources told AFP.

- 'Ready to welcome tourists' -

A number of European countries are preparing to reopen borders on Monday after the EU Commission urged a relaxation of restrictions.

Poland reopened its borders to all fellow EU members on Saturday.

France said it would gradually reopen its borders to non-Schengen countries from next month, and Germany said it would end land border checks on Monday.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis travelled to the picturesque island of Santorini on Saturday to open his country's tourism season.

"Greece is ready to welcome tourists this summer by putting safety and health as our No.1 priority," he said in English.

In several European countries, the focus has shifted to the courts and who might eventually be blamed for the pandemic.

In hard-hit Italy, prosecutors grilled Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte for three hours over his government's response.

"I explained everything to prosecutors. I am totally calm," Conte said Saturday, adding he did not fear a judicial probe would be opened.

Public anger is mounting in France, where some 60 complaints have been filed against members of the government.

Elsewhere, British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair launched legal action against the British government over a 14-day coronavirus quarantine system introduced this week.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II meanwhile celebrated her official birthday on Saturday, the normally massive pomp and pageantry of the traditional "Trooping the Colour" ceremony vastly scaled back due to the pandemic.

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