The first cases with Omicron are reported near Beijing, a few weeks before the World Olympic Games
Hong Kong officials in Beijing are on high alert a few weeks before the start of the Winter Olympics on February 4, after the first explosion of the Omicron variant in China spread from the northern port city of Tianjin in the central province of Henan.
Tianjin, 80 miles southeast of Beijing, is testing the entire population of 14 million after Omicron was discovered in at least two locals on Saturday, the first reported community-wide spread of the highly transmitted variant.
The city reported at least 40 positive cases over the weekend, including 24 children, though health authorities have not yet confirmed whether they are infected with Omicron.
Tianjin authorities took swift action by placing 29 residential communities under severe blockade and ordered citizens not to leave the city unless absolutely necessary. Those wishing to leave must submit a negative Covid test completed within 48 hours and obtain approval from the employer or local government offices.
But the virus has already spread far beyond the city. State media reported Monday that two more Omicron cases had been identified in Anyang city, Henan province, more than 300 miles from Tianjin.
This news is disturbing for officials in Beijing, a city which is less than 30 minutes away from Tianjin by rail.
In recent months, Chinese authorities have imposed increasingly stringent restrictions to curb local Covid eruptions as Beijing prepares for the Winter Olympics. An Omicron blast on the outskirts of the capital just weeks before the start of the Games on February 4 is like a nightmare scenario for officials who could now step up efforts to defend Beijing.
"It is impossible for China to return cases to zero before the Winter Olympics because local outbreaks are appearing one after another," said Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong.
"The only thing Beijing can do is learn from the Tokyo Summer Games experience and host the Olympics while community broadcasting is taking place in the country," he said, noting that the event will be held within a bubble of closed isolated from the local community.
In a statement Sunday, the Beijing Center for Disease Control and Prevention advised Beijing residents not to visit Tianjin and those in Tianjin to refrain from traveling to the capital. He also urged travelers between the two cities to work from home. By Sunday evening, train tickets from Tianjin to Beijing could no longer be purchased online.