China has not budged in its opposition to living with the virus even amid the country’s worst outbreak, but its leaders are now pursuing an easier containment strategy in the uphill battle to tame the hyper-infectious coronavirus.

The widespread spread of Omicron means getting back to zero local cases is a tall order, even in cities that are repeatedly testing all residents, tracing close contacts and confining everyone at home while the virus rages on. . Instead, authorities have now decided that infections among close contacts already locked in isolation facilities do not pose a high risk.

The new metric to watch is the number of cases found among people who are not yet in quarantine. It is when this metric – known as “zero infection in society” in Chinese – drops to zero that China considers an outbreak contained.

The revamped target means lockdown measures can start to be eased once zero community spread has been reached, even though there are still high numbers of infections being detected each day among those in facilities of isolation.

That’s what happened during recent Chinese outbreaks in the technology hub of Shenzhen and the northern province of Jilin, where curbs were eased before the number of daily cases fell.

The situation in Shanghai is also likely to play out, indicating that the city’s 25 million people could emerge from lockdown sooner than current case numbers of more than 20,000 infections a day would suggest. According to the local government, only about 3% of currently detected infections are in the community.

“Dynamic Covid Zero does not mean zero infection,” Liang Wannian, one of China’s top epidemiologists, told state media in Shanghai over the weekend. Instead, the focus is on reducing future transmission, especially in the community.

“Since the virus cannot spread from person to person, the turning point of the epidemic would emerge naturally,” said Wannian, who has overseen China’s response to Covid since the start of the pandemic.

Dynamic Zero

The shift in focus aimed at disrupting community spread could embolden local authorities, leading them to ease restrictions, get factories back up and running and release people from home confinement. The objective is to limit the economic and social damage, while reducing the risk of reigniting an epidemic.

Shenzhen lifts citywide lockdown as situation appears to be under control

Shenzhen emerged from a week-long lockdown in mid-March, when community cases made up less than a third of the daily total. Jilin also allowed some areas where no virus was circulating in the community to gradually start opening up.

Yanbian, a prefecture bordering North Korea, started to resume production last week. Farmers across the province are commuting to begin their spring plowing under a closed-loop system.

Manufacturing and trade also resumed this week after local leaders said many places in the province had cleared their communities of the virus. Local state-owned joint venture production for global automakers Toyota Motor Corp. and Volkswagen AG in the capital Chuangchun is set to restart, about a month after it shut down, local media reported.

The recovery comes as the province is still reporting nearly 1,000 infections each day.

Xi’an outbreak

The pivot came during an epidemic in the delta that plunged the city of Xi’an, in the northwest, into a state of isolation in December.

Two weeks after its 13 million people were locked down, with daily infections at a third of their previous peak, officials said the curbs had succeeded in reducing the spread in the community, which was hailed as a turning into the epidemic.

It took another two weeks for local infections to completely return to zero. But the change marked a new direction in China’s approach to tackling Covid-19, two years after the country cleared all signs of the pathogen that first emerged in Wuhan in 2019.

When the amount of virus in circulation is very low, subsequent infections reported among people quarantined during an ongoing outbreak are not of as much concern. Reaching absolute zero of infections is expected to be only a matter of time once it is contained in the community.

Why China is sticking to its zero Covid strategy: quick take

It’s the best hope for Shanghai, the Chinese financial center that has become the country’s largest documented hotspot. Select compounds are now allowing residents to go outside in their neighborhood, provided no cases have been reported in the previous two weeks.

The entire city will have its outbreak under control once all of its new cases come from close contacts who are already isolated, a group that currently accounts for about 97% of them, Liang said.