the lessons the new Beijing outbreak holds for the UK

Singapore, Seoul in South Korea, Kaohsiung in Taiwan, Tokyo and now Beijing. All are cities that successfully suppressed the first wave of Sars-Cov-2 but have had to scramble to fight back subsequent significant outbreaks.

On Wednesday, China reported 44 new coronavirus cases, 31 of which were found in Beijing. The city has confirmed 137 cases over the last six days, ending a 56-day streak of zero infections. The city’s emergency level has been raised, outbound transport links have been severed and entire housing compounds quarantined in a bid to curb the spread.

These localised outbreaks, or clusters, can be seen as both an optimistic and a poor – either way we should become accustomed to them. As the pandemic rolls on, there will many others in cities across the world, and Europe will not be immune. Lives and economies will hinge on the efficiency of the cluster-busting teams deployed to cope with them.

The positive – and it’s a relative one – is that localised outbreaks in the midst of a pandemic are at least a sign that the virus has otherwise been suppressed. The outbreak in Beijing is dramatic because for over per month there have been no new cases in the city and life had all but came ultimately back to normal. Donald Trump, in comparison, would find it difficult to identify a definite cluster in the entire south-east quartile of the US where the first wave of the virus is still raging.

Most of the new Asian clusters have already been associated with classic superspreader events, which is again something we are able to expect in Europe. In Beijing, it had been another big wholesale grocery store that set things off. In Taiwan, a naval ship. In Singapore, a dormitory for migrant workers. And in Seoul, it had been a busy nightclub.

All are enclosed, tightly packed, loud and well-networked spaces, and offer the perfect launchpad for the virus. Within them, it can take just one single case to have things going.

They explain why the K number measures the huge difference in exactly how many people each individual with coronavirus infects –for the virus is estimated to be at about 0.1, and therefore 80-90 % of onward transmissions may be traced back once again to just 10 per cent of cases. The lower the number, the more “super spreaders” there are. 

You enter such venues – which can by logic and accumulating evidence be extended to incorporate religious services, concerts, loud bars and aerobic exercise studios – at your peril, or if you are young, at the peril of older colleagues, friends and relatives.

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