Chinese doctors question Beijing’s COVID-19 contact tracing policy


Three leading Chinese health scholars questioned the government’s monitoring of cell phone location data to identify close contacts of Covid-19 cases, a rare example of public opposition to the country’s severe pandemic prevention strategy.

The trio was led by Chen Fujun at the West China Fourth Hospital in Chengdu, southwestern city. The hospital imposed travel restrictions and compulsory testing on mobile phone users who strayed in for 10 minutes within 800m of a confirmed case.

In a letter dated November 8 seen by the Financial Times, Chen and doctors Li Jiayuan and Wang Chuan wrote that the plan could lead to “overuse of medical resources, increased public panic, and people’s normal Interruption of life and work”.

“We should consider the sustainability of these measures,” the doctors added, thinking that the pandemic may continue.

Since the beginning of the Chinese pandemic, public criticism of the government’s response has been severely restricted due to the censorship system and fear of retaliation. Some journalists were jailed for reporting on Beijing’s early handling of the virus, while other critics were hit by a wave of nationalist cyber attacks.

The criticism of doctors highlights the increasingly severe challenges facing the Chinese government. Despite repeated outbreaks of highly contagious variants of Delta, the Chinese government still adheres to its “Zero Covid” containment strategy.

Huang Yanzhong, a public health policy expert at the New York Foreign Relations Committee, said that Chengdu’s measures were “excessive”, reflecting the authorities’ weak assessment of risks.

He added that the government seems to think that the only two options in the country are “zero cases or… [a] The worst-case scenario is that the entire healthcare system is overwhelmed and social stability is undermined.”

The latest move in Chengdu was taken after a nationwide outbreak that began in late October, which infected more than 1,000 people in dozens of cities.

Although there were only 33 new cases since the end of last month, Chengdu authorities began to force local residents to self-quarantine for three days and pass two virus tests to return to normal. Life.

Within three days of implementing the rule, the Chengdu police confirmed the identities of 82,000 people, who they believed were in the vicinity of 9 people diagnosed with the new crown virus.

Some provinces have implemented stricter systems. Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, has reported only two new cases since mid-July. But in October, it stated that those residents whose mobile phone data brought them close to confirmed cases must undergo three virus tests within 7 days before they can travel freely.

Other countries, such as Singapore and South Korea, have used cell phone location data to contain the pandemic. But none of them defines close contacts as broadly as Chinese cities.

Singapore is one of the most actively adopting contact tracing countries in the world, and people are considered close contacts only when they are within 2 million of a confirmed case.

Three doctors in Chengdu said that the city’s enhanced contact tracing program can identify many people as close contacts, even if they are unlikely to be infected.

“Should limit the scope [close contact] Screening,” the doctor said, adding that local officials should avoid “improper use of big data” to fight the pandemic.

The doctor did not respond to a request for comment. As long as China maintains its zero Covid policy, local authorities will consider this inconvenience to be inevitable.

A public health official in Chengdu, who asked not to be named, said: “We would rather mislabel a thousand close contacts than miss a real case.” “That is for the public interest.”

But the people identified by the Chengdu monitoring system are also skeptical of its effectiveness.

On November 7, Lucy Yang, a financial consultant in Shanghai, received a text message from the Chengdu Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calling her a close contact of the Covid case, and she was confused. Although she had only been to Chengdu for a short time two weeks ago, she was subject to travel restrictions and had to pass two virus tests within 72 hours.

“I went to Chengdu for a day trip on October 22, and it wasn’t until October 28 that the city’s first confirmed case in the most recent epidemic appeared,” Yang said. “The tracking system clearly has an accuracy problem.”

Additional reporting by Tom Mitchell in Singapore

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