China is facing a new coronavirus flare-up along its remote northern border with Russia.
The frontier has been sealed and emergency medical units rushed to the area to prevent travellers from bringing the virus back from overseas.
The virus originated in China, which is now striving to keep the virus out while other countries struggle to bring their own outbreaks under control.
The long, porous border of Heilongjiang province and neighbouring Inner Mongolia has much less travel than major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. But it is a popular alternative route into the country.
Many Chinese live and work in Russia, where China has major investments encouraged by warm ties between Beijing and Moscow.
By Monday night, a field hospital was operating in the city of Suifenhe along the Russian border, equipped with a negative pressure lab to diagnose new cases.
Staffed by 22 experts from the National Institute for Viral Disease Control and Prevention under the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it will conduct nucleic acid tests and other forms of research to aid in virus control and prevention, allowing the city to test up to 1,000 cases per day, according to the CDC.
Suifenhe, a city of just under 70,000, has at least 243 imported Covid-19 cases out of nearly 1,000 confirmed and suspected cases. More than 100 people in the area have tested positive for the virus but showed no symptoms. Recent arrivals from Russia account for nearly half of China’s imported cases.
National Health Commission expert Wang Bin said: “We are facing a truly grave situation in the north-east as represented by Suifenhe. Up to now our medical resources in the area have just not been sufficient.”
The CDC said the field hospital has been supplied with negative pressure tents, nucleic acid extractors, virus detection kits, throat swab sampling tubes and thermal cyclers used to enhance segments of DNA via the polymerase chain reaction.
Roughly 800 miles north-east of Beijing, Suifenhe’s markets selling warm clothing, mobile phones and daily items usually do a thriving business with Russian visitors starved for choice on their side of the border. That trade has gone quiet in recent weeks, dimming prospects for a sparsely populated region whose residents have been migrating to major cities seeking jobs and better living standards.
Russia requires 14-day quarantines for all travellers arriving in Primorsky Krai and its regional capital Pogranichny, across the border. It has closed hotels to visitors and is requiring travellers to have a pass showing they are not carrying the virus. Russia closed its land border to travellers from China in January.
On the Chinese side, quarantines have been extended to a full month for people arriving by air in Suifenhe and in Heilongjiang’s capital, Harbin. All land border crossings were halted last week.
“The Chinese consulate again strongly reminds Chinese citizens not to summarily make trips to the border region,” the Chinese consulate in the nearby Russian city of Vladivostok said in a notice posted on Monday.