Residents queue at a Covid-19 testing booth in Beijing, China on Monday, November 28, 2022. The capital has been requiring regular virus tests for more than six months.
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BEIJING — Local frustration with Covid controls in China has increasingly targeted virus testing requirements and the big business they have fueled.
On Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, the hashtag was trending Tuesday morning: “If the virus testing chaos never stops, the pandemic may never end,” according to CNBC’s Chinese translation.
The hashtag referred to the headline of a now-deleted opinion piece from a publication overseen by People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper. The article listed several cases of suspected fake virus test results across the country this year, including in Shanghai and Beijing.
The article warned that misreporting nucleic acid test results could allow the virus to spread more widely, leading to even more rounds of testing – and months of bans.
The same media outlet on Monday published an article, which is still online, about more than 30 virus testing companies in China, all controlled by the same shareholder – who has been repeatedly fined.
Last week, Lanzhou city health officials accused one of those companies of reporting some positive virus test results as negative.
It’s not clear to what extent there is fraud or if the sheer volume of testing makes accurate processing difficult.
In the US, a spate of pop-up virus testing stations has raised concerns about fraud and identity theft.
On Tuesday, a Chinese official told a news conference that the cities of Beijing, Hefei and Shijiazhuang, among others, found problems with some virus testing companies and fined them. Criminal investigations have also been launched against some institutions and individuals, the official added.
Over the past month, several major cities in mainland China have reported spikes in infections, prompting renewed lockdowns. Students and groups of people have held public demonstrations over the weekend to protest Covid controls, a policy that has been in place for almost three years.
Restrictions got tighter this year as authorities tried to track down and contain the more contagious Omicron variant. The capital Beijing, Shanghai and many parts of the country have been mandating regular virus tests for months – to travel or to enter public places like a supermarket.
Beijing city authorities said on Wednesday people who mostly stay at home do not need to be tested regularly, after making a similar announcement in parts of the city of Guangzhou earlier in the week.
Virus testing: big business
CNBC selected 15 listed Chinese Covid testing companies and found that they reported total revenue of 86.58 billion yuan ($12.2 billion) in the first three quarters of the year, according to data from Wind Information.
Not all of their earnings necessarily come from testing. But her business posted big gains through the end of September this year.
Seven of the companies reported that sales nearly doubled or increased year-over-year during that time — one nearly quadrupled, the data shows. Three of those companies had been listed on the mainland market since the pandemic began in early 2020.
Last week, the Shanghai Stock Exchange canceled its review of a virus testing company’s planned IPO.
In the first half of the year, 237 companies registered in connection with virus testing in China – up 51.9% from a year ago, according to Qichacha, a Chinese company database.
Examination only 15 minutes walk away
Until earlier this year, virus tests were mainly carried out by hospitals and negative results were not required to enter public facilities in certain cities.
Analysts had said regular testing could help authorities contain infections faster.
But after Shanghai’s lockdown in early April, many cities, including Beijing, began setting up more neighborhood kiosks for PCR virus testing — polymerase chain reaction tests that are highly accurate and relatively easy to process.
In Beijing at least, stations often display the logos of companies conducting the tests, with no upfront fee for those tested.
In May, the central government promoted the idea that in major cities a Covid testing station should be within 15 minutes’ walk. The city of Beijing reaffirmed those plans on Wednesday.
As China embarks on a path to reopening, state media have placed more emphasis on local compliance with the latest version of the health agency’s Covid guideline and follow-up measures released in November. It is also not specified whether and how virus test stations should be used.