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F.D.A. Advisors Weigh Shots for the Very Young, With Key Data Outstanding
michael barbaro

Hey, it’s Michael. The Daily is working on a special memorial episode about deaths from Covid in the United States. If you’ve lost someone and want to share their name and something that you miss about them on the show, please go to nytimes.com/dailymemorial. That’s nytimes.com/dailymemorial. And thank you.

sabrina tavernise

From The New York Times, I’m Sabrina Tavernise. This is The Daily.

flight captain

Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. My name is [INAUDIBLE], and I have the pleasure to be your captain for this flight, destination Beijing.

sabrina tavernise

Reporters from across The Times are joining athletes from around the world —

flight captain

— and the entire crew, we wish you a very good [INAUDIBLE].

sabrina tavernise

— as they descend on Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics.

reporter 1

Come off the plane, greeted by a bunch of guys in hazmat suits. Not bad. Welcome committee when we walk in.

reporter 2

It says health quarantine ahead, [INAUDIBLE] acid.

sabrina tavernise

And as they do —

reporter 3

And it smells like bleach. Even through my mask, I can smell that.

sabrina tavernise

— they’re encountering the strictest and most sweeping health requirements ever attempted at the Olympic Games.

speaker 1

Please take off your mask.

interposing voices

Oh. Ahh.

sabrina tavernise

Extensive testing.

archived recording (reporter 1)

Holy-moly, that was really, like, quite a nose swab.

archived recording (reporter 2)

I’m sure the listeners cannot wait to hear my gag reflex.

sabrina tavernise

And biometric monitoring.

speaker

Hold up your QR code.

reporter

I’ve never scanned more QR codes in my life. It’s going to be a long few weeks.

sabrina tavernise

All of it an extension of China’s zero Covid policy.

reporter

How do you say thank you in Chinese?

speaker

Xiè xiè.

reporter

Oh yeah, Xiè xiè. OK.

sabrina tavernise

And it’s been dubbed the Covid superbubble.

speaker 1

OK, thank you.

speaker 2

OK, thank you.

[music]
sabrina tavernise

Today: My colleague Amy Qin on what it’s like inside that bubble, and whether China’s approach to the virus can last.

It’s Friday, February 4.

Amy, you’re back in Beijing for the first time since the pandemic began. And the last time we had you on the show was you describing your reporting from the beginning of the outbreak in Wuhan. So what’s it like to be back?

amy qin

Honestly, it’s very surreal. We landed today, and we were greeted by an army of airport workers in hazmat suits, goggles, shoe covers. And we’re here in the city, but it doesn’t really feel like we’re in the city because we’re in this huge bubble, and we aren’t really able to move around. I’m in this hotel room now, and we can only go between various other hotels and the competition venues. So it’s really strange to be back.

sabrina tavernise

You’re like a prisoner in your own hotel.

amy qin

Yeah, exactly.

sabrina tavernise

And can you explain the thinking behind these measures?

amy qin

Well, China has been adhering throughout the pandemic to this policy that’s become known as the zero-Covid policy. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has basically made it his goal to keep the virus out of the country as much as possible. And that’s really difficult when you have thousands of people coming in from all over the world to Beijing.

sabrina tavernise

OK, so tell me how China got to this point where it’s pursuing a strategy of zero Covid, one that really seems pretty unthinkable in most parts of the world.

amy qin

So China’s zero-Covid strategy is actually rooted in how this virus came about. It first emerged two years ago, around December 2019, in Wuhan. And back then, it was this mysterious virus. People didn’t really know that much about it, and it was circulating. And a lot of doctors in Wuhan hospitals started to notice that there were these patients trickling in, and they were very worried about it.

They tried to sound the alarm, but local officials were really concerned, and they didn’t really want it to disrupt the politics and the social stability. And it kind of spiraled out of control, to the point where the central government had to step in. And in January 2020, they locked down the entire city of Wuhan.

archived recording

[SHOUTING] Residents of Wuhan locked inside their high-rise apartments, screaming for help.

[SHOUTING]

amy qin

And it was just a very bleak period. And I remember people were so angry, people were so upset that the government wasn’t responding in the way that they felt they should be.

archived recording 1

A woman brought her 78-year-old grandfather to the hospital.

archived recording 2

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

amy qin

There weren’t enough tests.

archived recording

He’d already been turned away from one that had no more beds.

amy qin

The hospitals were full.

archived recording 1

Guards wouldn’t let him in.

archived recording 2

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

amy qin

There was bad communication, and the top leader, Xi Jinping, he was nowhere to be seen. And for the government, it was a huge moment of crisis. And it really escalated in February 2020, when this doctor who had tried to sound the alarm earlier about the coronavirus —

archived recording

The Chinese whistleblower doctor who told the world about the coronavirus in Wuhan has died.

amy qin

— actually got coronavirus himself, and then he died.

And people were so upset. I remember on that night just looking at my social media feed, and everyone was talking about it. And that was a moment when many of us analysts and people in the country were wondering, what does this mean for Xi Jinping? Is he going to be able to survive this crisis? Because many people were asking about his legitimacy at this point. What has he been doing? And I would say that was maybe the lowest moment.

After that, in February 2020, we started to see that the situation in Wuhan started to get a little bit better. The cases were going down. Hospitalizations were going down. Testing capacity was building up. And at that moment, we start to see Xi Jinping tried to rewrite himself into the narrative to show that he had actually been in control of this crisis from the beginning, that he had been issuing instructions from the beginning on how to handle this, that he had been in charge and that he hadn’t been sitting back. I mean, at this point, people hadn’t seen him in weeks.

And in early March 2020, he finally goes down to Wuhan, and he visits with the frontline workers, he talks to the officials there. And I think in that moment, for him it was almost a way to claim victory, to show that we can turn this crisis around. And soon after that, Wuhan actually reached zero cases for the first time since the virus first started emerging in late 2019. And that was just such a huge moment of relief and celebration, too. I mean, people were so excited to finally be able to go out into the streets again and return to normal life.

And this is all happening at a time when the coronavirus is getting really bad in the rest of the world. And we saw other governments around the world start to institute lockdowns, really struggle to contain their own outbreaks. And there was a split-screen contrast between this relatively normal life at home within China and what was happening with the rest of the world. And it played really well among Chinese citizens. And I think the government saw this, and they decided that we need to from now on maintain the zero-Covid strategy, and we really need to show off the legitimacy of our top-down centralized system.

sabrina tavernise

So how did this policy work? How did they expand it from Wuhan to the rest of China?

amy qin

So what we saw after that was the Chinese government really put into place this wildly ambitious program that was basically drawing on their lessons from Wuhan, and applied that all across the country. So what they did was they had a lot of snap lockdowns, mass testing. They did contact tracing. They also instituted very stringent border controls. So almost no people could come into the country. And if they did, they were subject to very onerous restrictions.

And over time, we saw the system gradually become more sophisticated. So for example, they added these QR codes. So when you would walk into a bar or to a restaurant or a grocery store or go onto the subway, you would have to scan these codes, which would then send your information to a government agency so that, if they found a positive case, they would be able to do a contact tracing process and basically figure out who you had been exposed to and at what time.

sabrina tavernise

Wow, that’s incredible.

amy qin

Yeah. And later on, they added this green health code, which is basically like a digital passport that you have on your phone. And you need to have this in order to go basically into any public space — into buildings, into offices, into restaurants. And it’s color coded, so it shows either green, yellow or red. And it uses location data and other kinds of data to basically determine your risk for Covid.

And ideally, of course, you’d want to have green. But there have been reports, when someone goes to a city that’s considered medium risk or maybe has had a recent outbreak, your code might turn yellow. More recently, we’ve seen that if you go to a pharmacy and you buy medicine for a symptom that’s considered to be a Covid symptom, like coughing or fever, that your code then might also turn yellow. And so if your code changed to yellow or red, then you’d have to self-isolate for at least a week and get tested.

sabrina tavernise

Hm.

amy qin

Over time, what we’ve seen is that it’s become even more sophisticated, to the point that they’ve in some places, for example, expanded the definition of what a close contact is, so that even if your cell phone signal is within half a mile of someone who is thought to have been exposed to Covid, then you’re considered a close contact, even if you didn’t pass by this person.

sabrina tavernise

Wow.

amy qin

Yeah. And there was also a low-tech element to this, as well. Basically starting in Wuhan, the government really turned to what’s called the grid workers. They’re basically community workers. Oftentimes, they’re volunteers, or sometimes even just Communist Party members, sort of community busybodies who maybe before the pandemic spent their time pulling weeds and making sure that the neighborhood was safe. But during the pandemic, they really took on this new role, where they were the enforcers of the government’s policies.

And a lot of them would be stationed at these residential complexes, making sure that they recorded the identities of everyone who came in and out, that they took temperatures of everyone who came in and out. They went door to door and made sure that people who are vaccinated. And they were really filling in the gaps for what the high-tech solutions couldn’t do. And I think this combination of this high tech plus just sheer manpower really made the government’s zero-Covid policy a huge success.

sabrina tavernise

Meaning that there was zero Covid in China?

amy qin

Well, for a long time, there were many days in which they reported zero locally transmitted cases. And maybe sometimes they would find a few, but for the most part, there really was not really that much virus. People in China were able to live largely normal lives. I mean, they had to wear masks, they still had to measure their temperatures when they went into places. But for the most part, there really was very little virus in the country, as far as we know.

If you look at the graph of Covid deaths and cases in China, you see a big spike in January to April 2020, but then after that, it basically just flatlines. I mean, if you even look at the death toll today, China has only had 4,600 or so deaths from the coronavirus.

sabrina tavernise

Wow, that’s crazy. I mean, China has a billion people.

amy qin

Yeah.

sabrina tavernise

The United States has 330 million, and has had a million deaths. So —

amy qin

Mhm.

sabrina tavernise

— is that even possible, that number?

amy qin

I think so. I mean, obviously there was a lot made in the beginning about was China accurately reporting the number of cases and deaths in Wuhan, but after Wuhan, the incentives really changed. Officials were really incentivized to actually find the cases, and not to cover them up. Because if the outbreaks happened on their watch, that’s when they got into trouble.

sabrina tavernise

Hm.

amy qin

And I think that maybe there were some cases that were missed, but I think if there were a lot more deaths, we would know that. We would know that from the hospital being overwhelmed. We would hear that. And we just haven’t heard that.

sabrina tavernise

Hm. And what about vaccines?

amy qin

Well, China’s actually developed its own vaccines. And there’s been some questions about the efficacy, but they’ve been really successful with the uptake. They’ve gotten actually over 85% of their population vaccinated now.

sabrina tavernise

So it sounds like Xi’s zero Covid gamble really did pay off, and it paid off reputationally, too. Like, it looked like he was in charge, and he was pretty good at handling this big, complicated public health challenge.

amy qin

Definitely. I think that the Chinese government has really tried to hold up its success in controlling the coronavirus as validation for its model of governance. And they’ve really harped on that in their messaging to the citizens, saying look at the chaos of the West, and then look at us at home. We have a relatively normal life. Our economy is still going. We haven’t had these crazy lockdowns. This is China’s success. This is the success of our system.

sabrina tavernise

Really interesting. So it became this moment of national pride.

amy qin

Right. And the Chinese people were hugely supportive of this policy. It had enabled them to live this relatively normal life. And that went on for about a year and a half, until the fall of 2021. And that’s when the variants hit. And that posed a new challenge for Xi Jinping.

[music]
sabrina tavernise

We’ll be right back.

OK, tell me what happened after the Covid variants started showing up in China.

amy qin

So we started to see these small outbreaks appearing around the country. They were oftentimes coming in via travelers who were traveling to China, and they were infecting airport workers because the virus was more transmissible, so it was just harder to stop. But China basically just continued to throw its zero-Covid playbook at it. They instituted snap lockdowns. If they found a few cases in a city, they might lockdown the entire city and institute mass testing.

sabrina tavernise

Wow.

amy qin

So it’s really disruptive. It’s really disrupting people’s lives.

[music]

We’ve heard these crazy stories. There was one woman who was on a second date with a man. She was at his family’s home, and they instituted a snap lockdown in the town where she was because a case had been found, and she ended up having to quarantine with this man and his family for a month.

sabrina tavernise

Oh my god. She didn’t know them, and she was quarantining with them for a month?

amy qin

Luckily, she seemed to get along very well with them. My colleague spoke to her, and she said that they’re planning to get engaged soon. So —

sabrina tavernise

Oh, nice, it turned out well.

amy qin

— yeah, but in other cases, it’s been kind of a nightmare. I spoke with another woman who was in Shanghai, and she had just been to an office building — not her own office building — for a meeting. And she’d been there for an hour.

And the next day, she was getting ready for bed, and she got an email basically saying you need to come back to this office right away. She went back, and it turns out that someone who had been exposed to the virus had been on that floor the day before she was there, and so there was a possibility that she might have the virus. And so she ended up having to quarantine in this office with 200 other people for two days while they got tested.

sabrina tavernise

Oh my god.

amy qin

They were sleeping in sleeping bags. She sent me a photo of her sleeping bag on a windowsill. There were no showers.

sabrina tavernise

Oh my god.

amy qin

She told me about one man that she met there who actually had been there for a job interview, and then he had been called back and he ended up having to isolate with all the people that he had interviewed with.

sabrina tavernise

Oh, no.

amy qin

So it’s just created a lot of uncertainty, and you’re definitely starting to hear more grumbling from people about these policies. We saw in December there was an entire city of 13 million people was shut down over a Delta outbreak. They were confined to their apartments for weeks. They stopped traffic on the streets. They couldn’t travel in and out of the city. It was pretty chaotic. And into January, we saw these lockdowns continue. At one point, there were more than 20 million people in China under lockdown in various cities.

sabrina tavernise

Wow.

amy qin

In one city, they had found three asymptomatic cases, and they locked down an entire city of 1.2 million people.

sabrina tavernise

OK, so it sounds like the variants put some real strain on China’s policy of no Covid.

amy qin

It has. And it’s all been happening in the weeks leading up to the Winter Olympics, which, for Xi Jinping, was supposed to be this moment —

[music]
archived recording (xi jinping)

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

amy qin

— he said, to show off the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation —

archived recording (xi jinping)

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

amy qin

— and to show the strength of the Chinese system, especially in this period of the pandemic, when the Chinese system has done so well in keeping the virus out, for the most part, and keeping Covid deaths down.

archived recording (xi jinping)

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

amy qin

But what we’ve seen is, in the weeks leading up to the Olympics, Xi Jinping has been shifting the messaging a little bit. He’s sort of backing away from this grandiose framing of the Olympics as this opportunity to showcase the Chinese nation, and we’ve seen him talk about the Olympics and just say we just want to have a simple, safe and green Olympics.

sabrina tavernise

So in other words, a guy who’s really used to controlling things, he staked his government’s reputation on it. And suddenly, right when he had planned to show the world how well China had handled the virus, he can’t actually control the virus.

amy qin

Right. And I think that’s why we’re starting to see this shift away from this focus on zero cases, and more towards this idea that the government can actually just respond quickly and nimbly to small outbreaks, and get them under control very decisively. And we’re seeing all of this in action now in the Olympic bubble.

sabrina tavernise

What are some things you’ve been seeing, Amy?

amy qin

So there’s basically one big bubble in Beijing. It’s three areas. It’s connected by these designated trains, buses and taxis that are only working for the Olympics. They’re so isolated that the Beijing government has even informed the public that if there is an accident, don’t go help these vehicles. We have a special team on standby to go help them. That’s how much they don’t want us to come into contact with them.

I went around to the media center today, and — well, first of all, there were a lot of robots, because basically they’re trying to minimize the amount that humans have to do within the bubble. And so we saw in the cafeteria, for example, there were dumpling-making robots.

sabrina tavernise

Whoa.

amy qin

There were robots making cocktails. There were robots delivering food where — it’s almost like in a claw machine, where it comes above you, and then it just sort of drops down your plate of food right at your table, and then you just take it off and then it goes back up.

sabrina tavernise

It sounds like “Star Wars.”

amy qin

Yeah, it’s all pretty strange. But everyone who is coming into the bubble has to stay in the bubble. We can’t leave, and I can’t really speak to anyone here in China. I mean, I’ve really only been able to have a few conversations. There was a really nice taxi driver this morning who was telling me about how he had entered the bubble last month, and he was so sad to spend the Lunar New Year holiday by himself, but his wife had encouraged him to do it because she had actually worked in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and she wanted him to have that experience, too. But because of that, he won’t be able to go home until March.

sabrina tavernise

Wow. OK, so Amy, let’s say that all of these measures actually accomplish what Xi Jinping wants — a safe, simple Olympics, like he says. What will that mean for Xi, and what would it mean for China?

amy qin

Well, I think in the short term, it’ll be a victory for him. There have been a lot of doubters, a lot of people questioning whether he can pull this off, and whether all these measures will work. But I think in the longer term, it’s more of an open question. You know, China has really betted that the virus is going to go away, and we are realizing that it’s just not. There’s going to be more variants. It’s going to get more transmissible.

And so it’s not really clear that a zero-Covid policy is going to be sustainable in the future. You’re going to need to have more effective vaccines, and you’re going to have to think about how you move this population of 1.4 billion people that has basically no immunity to the virus back into normal society. And eventually, Xi Jinping is going to have to figure out how to get people to the point where they feel comfortable living with the virus, just like everyone else is trying to figure that out right now, too.

[music]
sabrina tavernise

Amy, thank you.

amy qin

Thanks so much for having me.

[music]
sabrina tavernise

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today. On Thursday, new details emerged about an American military raid that left the leader of the Islamic State dead. Just after midnight, in a province in Northern Syria, two dozen commandos surrounded a house and told the people inside to surrender.

archived recording (john kirby)

There were numerous calls made to encourage everyone in the building to leave. Numerous calls were made.

sabrina tavernise

The ISIS leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi died when he exploded a bomb that also killed members of his family. In all, 13 people were killed, including women and children.

archived recording (john kirby)

U.S. forces actually extricated four children from the second floor after they went into the building. So —

sabrina tavernise

The Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the raid had involved months of planning. The timing depended on many factors, including the weather. He said that the night was moonless, ideal for night raids. President Biden said the ISIS leader had committed atrocities against the Yazidi people, and that the choice to use special forces was made to minimize civilian casualties.

[music]

Today’s episode was produced by Robert Jimison, Eric Krupke and Luke Vander Ploeg, with help from Lynsea Garrison. It was edited by Michael Benoist, contains original music by Dan Powell, Marion Lozano and Brad Fisher, and was engineered by Brad Fisher. Special thanks to Juliet Macur and Alan Blinder. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

The Daily is made by Lisa Tobin, Rachel Quester, Lynsea Garrison, Clare Toeniskoetter, Paige Cowett, Michael Simon Johnson, Brad Fisher, Larissa Anderson, Chris Wood, Jessica Cheung, Stella Tan, Alexandra Leigh Young, Lisa Chow, Eric Krupke, Marc Georges, Luke Vander Ploeg, M.J. Davis Lin, Austin Mitchell, Dan Powell, Dave Shaw, Sydney Harper, Robert Jimison, Michael Benoist, Liz O. Baylen, Asthaa Chaturvedi, Kaitlin Roberts, Rachelle Bonja, Diana Nguyen, Marion Lozano, Corey Schreppel, Anita Badejo, Rob Szypko, Elisheba Ittoop, Chelsea Daniel, Mooj Zadie, Patricia Willens, Rowan Niemisto, Jody Becker, Rikki Novetsky, and John Ketchum.

Special thanks to Sam Dolnick, Paula Szuchman, Cliff Levy, Lauren Jackson, Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani, Sofia Milan, Des Ibekwe, Erica Futterman, Wendy Dorr, Elizabeth Davis-Moorer, Jeffrey Miranda, Renan Borelli and Maddy Masiello.

That’s it for The Daily. I’m Sabrina Tavernise. See you on Monday.