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China’s New Outbreak Shows Signs the Virus Could Be Changing

Chinese doctors are seeing the coronavirus manifest differently among patients in its new cluster of cases in the northeast region compared to the original outbreak in Wuhan, suggesting that the pathogen may be changing in unknown ways and complicating efforts to stamp it out.

Patients found in the northern provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang appear to carry the virus for a longer period of time and take longer to test negative, Qiu Haibo, one of China’s top critical care doctors, told state television on Tuesday.

Patients in the northeast also appear to be taking longer than the one to two weeks observed in Wuhan to develop symptoms after infection, and this delayed onset is making it harder for authorities to catch cases before they spread, said Qiu, who is now in the northern region treating patients.

“The longer period during which infected patients show no symptoms has created clusters of family infections,” said Qiu, who was earlier sent to Wuhan to help in the original outbreak. Some 46 cases have been reported over the past two weeks spread across three cities — Shulan, Jilin city and Shengyang — in two provinces, a resurgence of infection that sparked renewed lockdown measures over a region of 100 million people.

Scientists still do not fully understand if the virus is changing in significant ways and the differences Chinese doctors are seeing could be due to the fact that they’re able to observe patients more thoroughly and from an earlier stage than in Wuhan. When the outbreak first exploded in the central Chinese city, the local health-care system was so overwhelmed that only the most serious cases were being treated. The northeast cluster is also far smaller than Hubei’s outbreak, which ultimately sickened over 68,000 people.

Still, the findings suggest that the remaining uncertainty over how the virus manifests will hinder governments’ efforts to curb its spread and re-open their battered economies. China has one of the most comprehensive virus detection and testing regimes globally and yet is still struggling to contain its new cluster.

China is moving aggressively to stem the spread of the new cluster ahead of its annual political gathering in Beijing scheduled to start this week. As thousands of delegates stream into the capital to endorse the government’s agenda, China’s central leadership is determined to project stability and control.

The northeast provinces have ordered a return of lockdown measures, halting train services, closing schools and sealing off residential compounds, dismaying residents who had thought the worst was over.

China’s New Outbreak Shows Signs the Virus Could Be Changing, Bloomberg, May 20

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