Asia Today: China’s cases spike ahead of WHO research visit

China is seeing a new surge in coronavirus cases in its frozen northeast as a World Health Organization team was due to arrive to probe the origins of the pandemic

China on Thursday also reported its first new death attributed to COVID-19 in months, raising the toll to 4,635 among 87,844 cases. China’s relatively low case figures are a testimony to the effectiveness of strict containment, tracing and quarantine measures, but have also raised questions about the tight hold the government maintains on all information related to the outbreak.

The National Health Commission said Heilongjiang province in the region traditionally known as Manchuria recorded 43 new cases, most of them centered on the city of Suihua outside the provincial capital of Harbin. The northern province of Hebei just outside Beijing, which has seen China’s most serious recent outbreak, recorded another 81 cases, marking the second straight day China’s total number of local infections has risen into triple digits. Another 14 cases were brought from outside the country.

China has put more than 20 million people under varying degrees of lockdown in Hebei, Beijing and other areas in hopes of stemming infections ahead of next month’s Lunar New Year holiday. The government has cut travel links to and from several cities, urged people to stay put for the holiday, postponed important political gatherings and plans to let schools out a week early to reduce the chances of infection.

Also Thursday, a 10-member WHO team was scheduled to arrive in the central city of Wuhan where the virus was first detected in late 2019. The visit was approved by President Xi Jinping’s government after months of diplomatic wrangling that prompted an unusual public complaint by the head of the WHO.

Scientists suspect the virus that has killed 1.9 million people since late 2019 jumped to humans from bats or other animals, most likely in China’s southwest.

The WHO team includes virus and other experts from the United States, Australia, Germany, Japan, Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, Qatar and Vietnam.