Beijing’s Olympic ‘bubble’ will be the most ambitious Covid quarantine ever attempted. Will it work?


(CNN) — The Winter Games are just two weeks away and outside the Olympic venues in Beijing, banners and decorations are up. But so are the long rows of metal fences and guard posts, dividing the Chinese capital and barring anyone without an official Covid-safe pass.

After being largely isolated from the world for two years, Beijing is preparing for the arrival of thousands of foreign Olympians, officials, journalists and support staff, including from countries where the highly transmissible variant of Omicron is rage.

The ability of the Chinese authorities to secure the Games against Covid and prevent any outbreak from spreading to Beijing is the ultimate test of China’s zero Covid strategy. The strict prevention and control measures are presented by the ruling Communist Party as proof of the self-proclaimed superiority of its authoritarian political system. The strategy has kept infections and deaths low – but it has also imposed painful lockdowns on millions and isolated China from the world.

And now Beijing is applying those same measures to the Olympics. To limit the spread of infection, it locks the entire Games into what authorities have called a “closed-loop system” – a bubble completely cut off from the rest of the city.

The quarantine is arguably the most ambitious of its kind ever undertaken. The NBA attempted something similar by creating a quarantine zone inside Disney World in Orlando, Florida, designed to keep players and staff safe for the final stages of the 2019-20 season. But what Beijing is about to attempt is on a whole other level.

While the NBA “bubble” was home to around 350 players from 22 teams, the Beijing bubble is home to around 11,000 people from around the world – and they’ll cross three competition areas up to 111 miles (180 kilometers) apart. other.

Securing the bubble will require massive manpower, meticulous planning, ubiquitous surveillance and rigorous government enforcement – ​​and the arrival of Omicron has only made the task even more difficult.

Already, the coronavirus has been detected during recent Olympic arrivals in Beijing, both at the airport and inside the closed loop.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said in a statement on Wednesday that so far 1.53% of tests taken on arrival are positive, while 0.02% of regular screening tests taken inside the closed loop are positive. He did not specify the total number of tests in the two scenarios.

“So far, all cases occur within 5 days of arrival and are therefore assessed as imported (contracted before arrival in Beijing). No infections occurred in the closed loop,” the statement said.

More than 2,000 participants arrived in Beijing on Friday, including athletes, officials, IOC members and media, according to the official Beijing Winter Games app. Thousands of Chinese volunteers and staff have already spent days, even weeks, inside the closed loop.

Here’s a breakdown of how the bubble is supposed to work.

The separation

Participants will be confined to the “closed loop” from the time they land until they take off. Throughout their stay, they will compete, work, eat and sleep without coming into contact with the wider Chinese population.

The “closed loop” consists of a series of stadiums, conference centers and more than 70 hotels, with those in downtown Beijing being fenced off and closely guarded by police; it even has its own transport system, with 4,000 vehicles dedicated to moving attendees from place to place.

Instead of a giant Olympic bubble, the system is formed by a network of interconnected mini-bubbles. They are concentrated in three areas: downtown Beijing, where the ice competitions and the opening and closing ceremonies will take place; the suburban district of Yanqing, site of alpine skiing and sliding; and Zhangjiakou, a city in neighboring Hebei province that will host Nordic skiing and most of the freestyle skiing and snowboarding events.

The three areas are connected by high-speed trains and highways. To maintain separation, even carriages are divided and closed-loop buses have specially marked lanes. Non-Olympic drivers crossing these lanes will be fined.

In a sign of the efforts Chinese authorities will make to avoid the bubble bursting, residents have been warned not to rush to offer help if an Olympic vehicle is involved in an accident.

“In the event of traffic accidents with special vehicles for the Winter Olympics, please be careful to maintain a safe distance,” Beijing traffic authorities said in a statement posted on social media. Beginning of the month. “Do not come into contact with any vehicles or personnel there and wait for professionals to arrive on the scene.”

Athletes, staff and volunteers inside the closed loop will also be separated from spectators, who have their own transportation and entry to events. Beijing organizers announced this week that tickets for the Games will not be sold to the general public in response to the pandemic, but rather distributed by authorities.

Jump in the bubble

Given China’s determination to rule out any cases of Covid, reaching the bubble is already a challenge.

Anyone entering the bubble must be fully vaccinated or face an additional 21-day quarantine upon arrival in Beijing before being allowed to enter the bubble.

The trip begins 14 days before departure. Participants are required to limit interactions with others to avoid catching Covid. They also have to use an app to upload their body temperature and answer daily questions about their health status.

Cybersecurity researchers have warned that the app contains security flaws that expose users to data breaches. Chinese authorities have dismissed concerns, but the United States and other countries are advising athletes to bring disposable burner phones to the Games.

Before departure, those traveling to the Games must pass two Covid tests. With few international flights allowed to land in Beijing, most attendees must take special charter flights. Upon arrival, they will be met by workers in hazmat suits and undergo another test, before being transported to their hotel in designated buses escorted by police.

How is it inside?

Once inside the bubble, participants will be subject to a series of rigorous prevention and control measures. They will be tested for Covid every day and must wear face masks at all times.

The stakes for catching Covid are extremely high. Participants who test positive will be immediately removed from the Games. Those who are symptomatic will be sent to a designated hospital for treatment, while asymptomatic cases will be taken to an isolation center. They will not be allowed to return to the bubble until all symptoms have cleared and they test negative twice in a row, meaning they will almost certainly miss their event.

PCR tests for the Beijing Winter Games are also stricter than those used by other sporting events, such as the NBA and NHL, meaning they can come back positive at a lower viral load.

A positive test can also affect the person’s teammates and colleagues. Anyone who has been exposed without a mask for more than 15 minutes to an infected person is considered a close contact and will be tested twice a day.

Chinese authorities have not revealed exactly how many workers will be inside the “closed-loop system”. Already in the bubble are thousands of Chinese volunteers and staff, including organizers, health workers, drivers, cleaners and chefs. The first group of volunteers – 16 students from a Beijing university – entered the “closed loop” on January 3 to work at Beijing Capital International Airport, ahead of the arrival of the first Olympic flight.

Chinese staff and volunteers are required to stay throughout the event, which means they will miss the Lunar New Year holidays. It’s China’s biggest festival and the most important time for families to come together – compared by some to Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Years combined. To exit the bubble, they must also undergo 21 days of strict quarantine at a designated facility.

Chinese organizers have touted the innovative technologies adopted inside the bubble to protect it from Covid.

At the ice hockey stadium, staff will wear armpit thermometers all day, which will sound the alarm if someone’s temperature rises above 37.3 degrees. Inside a “smart canteen” at the main media center, robots prepare Chinese and Western dishes and cocktails behind glass screens, while meals are delivered from the ceiling by automated robotic arms.

Will it work?

The IOC has suggested that the early detection of Covid-19 cases among arrivals is a sign that the “closed-loop system” is working.

“All of the data to date provides reassurance that daily PCR testing combined with the isolation and close contact policies in place mean that the closed loop is very safe and that there are no infectious participants in the interior,” he said in the statement.

Yanzhong Huang, senior global health researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it was not surprising – and even inevitable – to see cases inside the Olympic bubble.

“Considering the high transmissibility of the new variant, I’m sure there will be infections at the Games,” Huang said. “The question is whether these outbreaks will turn into outbreaks within the bubble – or worse yet, spread outside the bubble and cause outbreaks in the city and beyond.”

Huang added that he was “cautiously optimistic” about the success of China’s zero Covid strategy, citing the “unprecedentedly stringent measures”.

Earlier this month, the Omicron variant was detected in the Beijing community, prompting authorities to quickly shut down an office building and residential complex. Several cases of Delta have also since been reported.

Authorities warned against the “double pressure of domestic and imported cases”, while maintaining a confident tone.

“The overall situation remains under control,” Huang Chun, an official with the Beijing organizing committee, told a news conference last week. He added that there were no plans to cordon off the city or change coronavirus containment rules for the Winter Olympics.

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