Coronavirus: another Chinese city starts mass Covid-19 tests

Mandy Zuo

A city in northeast China has started testing all of its residents for the coronavirus, becoming the second in the country to embark on such a mass screening programme.

Mudanjiang in Heilongjiang province near the border with Russia is conducting nucleic acid tests for all residents and plans to complete them all within a week, according to the municipal health commission.

Mudanjiang was under tremendous pressure from imported cases in April as an influx of Chinese nationals arrived from Russia overland through the border town of Suifenhe. While all of these patients have recovered, dozens of asymptomatic cases linked to those cases have been detected since.

By Tuesday, there were 15 asymptomatic cases in Heilongjiang, all of whom were in Mudanjiang, the provincial government said on Wednesday.

Residents said their communities organised the testing and health workers started collecting throat swabs earlier this week.

In a statement posted on the city government’s website on Monday, the health commission said medical workers gathered on the weekend to learn how to collect and store samples and how to “be fully prepared for the citywide nucleic acid tests”.

Nearly 1,200 medical workers from 23 hospitals were sent to collect samples, it said. At the end of 2019, Mudanjiang had about 2.5 million permanent residents, according to the city’s statistics bureau.

The commission’s statement was deleted later, but a health official confirmed on Wednesday that the testing was under way, declining to give further details.

Bao Li, who lives in Aimin district, said her sample was collected early on Wednesday.

“There are designated points for every one or two communities. According to community workers, the tests should be done in six days,” she said.

The only other Chinese city to test people on such a scale is Wuhan, where the coronavirus that causes the disease Covid-19 was first identified.

Wuhan spent over 900 million yuan (US$126.5 million) screening nearly 10 million residents between May 15 and Monday.

Through the tests, health workers uncovered a total of 300 asymptomatic cases – people who tested positive but showed little or no symptoms.

Professor Yang Jinkui, from Beijing Tongren Hospital, said that conducting nucleic acid tests – which detect genetic material – for the entire population was costly and contributed little to scientists’ understanding about the immunity level of the population.

“We need to have an antibody test as well to see how many people have been infected,” he said adding that such tests could be done through sampling instead of blanket testing.

“It is of low value in terms of cost effectiveness,” he said, “Its significance is more for the reopening of the economy.”

Professor Jin Dong-yan, a molecular virologist at the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong, agreed that scientifically it was unnecessary to conduct nucleic acid tests on all residents.

“Some people likened it to another ‘Great Leap Forward’. I would agree with that,” Jin said, referring to the failed ideological campaign in the late 1950s that aimed to boost China’s economic strength but was based on unrealistic conditions.

When releasing the screening results on Tuesday, Wuhan deputy mayor Hu Yabo stressed that the tests basically gave the city a clean bill of health and would help the city’s economy return to normal.

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