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)

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

There are 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 are further lifting lockdowns.

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

After the disease emerged late last year in central China, authorities there largely eliminated transmission within their borders through hyper-strict lockdowns later emulated across the globe.

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

Authorities have forced residents in 11 nearby residential estates to stay home, ordered mass testing, established a "wartime mechanism" and deployed hundreds of police officers.

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

"There are cases living in there. It's real."

- More than 427,000 dead -

Worldwide, the pandemic has killed more than 427,000 and infected more than 7.7 million, while wreaking widespread economic devastation.

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

Mexico and Chile on Friday recorded their worst days yet during the pandemic, while Chilean health minister Jaime Manalich resigned Saturday amid a furor over the true disease toll there.

Brazil has recorded 41,828 deaths, surpassing Britain's toll.

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

In the US, which has seen the most COVID-19 deaths with over 115,000, more than a dozen states -- including populous Texas and Florida -- reported their highest-ever daily case totals in recent days.

In Russia, with 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.

German government sources told AFP a vaccine could be developed by year-end.

- '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 fellow EU members on Saturday.

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

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis travelled to picturesque Santorini island 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.

Venice sprang back to life Saturday, as hundreds of tourists flocked to the city for the reopening of the iconic Doge's Palace.

"It's a very strong emotion, like the first day of school," said Maria Cristina Gribaudi, who heads the city's Civic Museums Foundation.

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 over his government's response.

"I explained everything to prosecutors," Conte said Saturday, adding he did not fear a possible judicial probe.

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

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II meanwhile celebrated her official birthday on Saturday, with the normal pageantry of the traditional ceremony vastly reduced.

The 94-year-old monarch watched a scaled-down version of the "Trooping the Colour" on the grounds of Windsor Castle, where she has been staying during the virus outbreak.

In Spain, Lionel Messi returned to action as Barcelona resumed their La Liga title challenge and thumped Real Mallorca 4-0 in an empty stadium.

Clean shaven, and without any sign of the thigh problem that prevented him from training earlier this month, Messi played 90 minutes and looked like he had never been away.

And live sport returned to New Zealand on Saturday, as 20,000 fans watched rugby's Otago Highlanders edge the Waikato Chiefs, 28-27. The country has gone 22 days without new coronavirus cases.

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