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China's Xinjiang Region On Lockdown Amid Report Of New Cluster Of Coronavirus Cases

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The western Chinese region of Xinjiang is reporting a second mysterious cluster of coronavirus cases beginning in a clothing factory. The region is taking what's by now a well-worn approach to containing the cluster - that is, mass, pooled testing and a lockdown. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Last Saturday, October 24, the southern Xinjiang city of Kashgar suddenly went into lockdown. It wasn't until late that night that health officials disclosed they discovered one asymptomatic COVID case. One day later, state media reported...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Through translator) Kashgar Prefecture has 138 asymptomatic cases under effective control and is mass testing all close contacts and their close contacts.

FENG: Kashgar is the cultural stronghold of the Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic minority which China has detained in the hundreds of thousands since 2017. Xinjiang residents live under extensive surveillance, and little information has come out about how this cluster began. Here's Xinjiang's Health Commission Vice Director Gu Yingsu this week.

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GU YINGSU: (Through translator) The first case was discovered through routine weekly testing. This abundantly affirms that a continued, fixed testing of key populations is crucial.

FENG: Gu did not explain why Xinjiang residents undergo weekly testing, which is not mandated anywhere else in China. The government says the spreader was a 17-year-old woman working at a clothing factory. The young woman went home every two weekends despite living only about three miles from her house. And the type of factory she lived in, called a satellite factory, is where many former detainees are believed to be assigned work after being released from detention, according to Xinjiang government documents.

Now the county is locked down and doing mass, pooled testing. Lin Yang, an epidemiologist Hong Kong University, says it's a model with a successful track record in other cities that have seen outbreaks.

LIN YANG: Most of cities where such large-scale mass testing were conducted, and then they all adopt such a strategy to increase efficiency.

FENG: As in, to increase efficiency, dozens of samples are pooled and tested as one to reduce processing time. Xinjiang health authorities say they have tested all 4.7 million residents in Kashgar prefecture already. As of Friday morning, they discovered 197 cases.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID BYRNE AND BRIAN ENO'S "THE LIGHTHOUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.