Asia Today: China virus cases spike as WHO researchers visit

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People wearing face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus walk outside of an office complex in Beijing, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. China is concentrating its pandemic prevention efforts in the rural areas as officials urge people to not travel home for the annual Lunar New Year festival, as the country combats its most serious latest outbreak of COVID-19 since the pandemic originally broke out in Wuhan a year ago. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

BEIJING (AP) — China is seeing a new surge in coronavirus cases in its frozen northeast as a World Health Organization team arrived to investigate 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 arrived 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.

State broadcaster CGTN said the team will be quarantined for two weeks and will undergo testing for the virus.

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.

In other developments around the Asia-Pacific region:

— Indonesiastarted vaccinating health workers and public servants with the COVID-19 vaccine from Chinese drugmaker Sinovac Biotech. The Health Ministry is planning to vaccinate more than 1.3 million health workers and 17.4 million public officials in the first stage of its vaccination program that eventually is intended to cover two-thirds of its population, or 180 million of its 270 million people. The first 25 health workers to get the jab Thursday were employees of Jakarta’s Cipto Mangunkusumo Hospital. The rollout comes as Indonesia registered a daily high in COVID-19 infections and fatalities on Wednesday, with 11,278 cases and 306 deaths in the last 24 hours. The country has confirmed 858,000 infections and 24,900 deaths since the pandemic began.

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