China turns its attention to frozen foods in battle to eliminate virus threat, but experts remain skeptical

But small, sporadic clusters have continued to resurface, regardless of a number of the world’s strictest border restrictions and quarantine measures.

Apart from incoming vacationers, Chinese officers suspect the virus is being introduced by one other wrongdoer — imports of frozen meals.

But China claims it has confirmed that it is attainable to contract Covid-19 from meals packaging and is doubling down on efforts to forestall it.

“More and more evidence is showing that frozen seafood or meat products can bring viruses from outbreak countries into China,” Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist of the Chinese CDC, said this week.
Medical workers wearing protective suits collect samples from imported frozen beef for coronavirus tests at a food factory in Shanghai, China.
Over the previous 5 months, China has mentioned it has detected traces of the coronavirus on a slew of imported frozen meals merchandise or their packaging, together with shrimp from Ecuador, squid from Russia, fish from Norway and Indonesia, and beef and chicken wings from Brazil. But experts say China’s nucleic acid assessments might be choosing up genetic fragments of lifeless virus, that are not infectious.
Then, final month, when tracing the supply of an outbreak in the town of Qingdao, the Chinese CDC announced it had detected and remoted stay coronavirus on the packaging of imported frozen cod fish — a discovery it mentioned was the “world’s first” and “confirmed that contact with outer packaging contaminated by live novel coronavirus can cause infection.”

Heightened scrutiny

The Chinese CDC assertion introduced some unanswered questions. Qingdao officers mentioned the outbreak was traced back to two dock staff who examined constructive, but the CDC didn’t say whether or not these staff had contracted the virus from the contaminated package deal or by different means.

Jin Dongyan, a virology professor on the University of Hong Kong, mentioned whereas there’s such a chance, the CDC didn’t present strong proof of the transmission. He mentioned the employees may have contracted the virus from elsewhere after which contaminated the meals packaging. The lacking step, he mentioned, could be to evaluate the genetic sequences of the virus in the Qingdao staff and in individuals who dealt with the meals on the supply of the imports.

“Every virus has its own marks. If they match, then we can say there is a chain of evidence,” he mentioned.

Still, Qingdao authorities heightened scrutiny and ordered “every piece” of imported cold-chain merchandise to be examined. Workers unloading, carrying and transporting these merchandise have been additionally ordered to be examined each three to 5 days.
The Chinese city of Qingdao tested more than 10 million residents in just four days following a small cluster of Covid-19 cases in October.

This week, Chinese authorities once more tightened procedures, after a employee for a frozen meals firm in the port metropolis of Tianjin examined constructive for the virus final weekend.

The an infection was solely found after metropolis officers have been knowledgeable {that a} batch of German pork knuckles imported by way of Tianjin had examined constructive for the coronavirus in a neighboring province. A truck driver linked to the chilly storage facility has additionally examined constructive.

On Monday, the Chinese authorities introduced that each one shipments of refrigerated and frozen meals imports should be disinfected earlier than they’re allowed into the market. The requirement contains each the inside and outer packaging of those merchandise, and the automobiles used to transport them.

“We will earnestly implement preventative disinfection of cold-chain food imports at ports of entry and strengthen inter-agency cooperation to stop the importation of Covid-19 through cold-chain food products,” Bi Kexin, a senior official in cost of meals security on the General Administration of Customs, mentioned at a information convention Thursday.

The extraordinary measures are in addition to in depth screening that has already been launched.

As of Thursday, Chinese customs mentioned it had halted imports from 99 meals firms throughout 20 international locations the place international manufacturing facility staff have been mentioned to have contracted Covid-19.

Meanwhile, customs authorities throughout China have stepped up coronavirus testing on frozen meals imports, particularly seafood. As of Thursday, they’d carried out random spot checks on some 873,000 samples, amongst which 13 have been mentioned to have examined constructive.

Companies whose merchandise examined constructive face non permanent import suspensions, starting from one to 4 weeks. So far, eight firms and 6 fishing vessels had been hit by the measure.

Blaming the imports

China turned suspicious of imported frozen meals after an outbreak emerged from the most important wholesale meals market in Beijing in June.

Prior to that, Beijing had not reported a neighborhood an infection in 56 days. Wu, the CDC chief epidemiologist, said on the time that the coronavirus was introduced into the market both by contaminated seafood or meat imports, or by an contaminated individual, but investigations have been wanted to attain an conclusion.
Xinfadi, the largest wholesale food market in Beijing, was the epicenter of the city's coronavirus outbreak in June.
Four months later, Wu was much more sure. “(The Beijing outbreak) was the world’s first discovery and confirmation that contaminated food can cause new Covid-19 outbreaks in other countries via cold-chain transportation,” he told the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection on Tuesday.

Wu didn’t elaborate on how he reached the conclusion, but different Chinese scientists and well being officers have additionally pointed to imported frozen seafood because the possible wrongdoer of that outbreak.

In a study printed final month in the National Science assessment, a journal below the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a group of experts, together with from the Beijing CDC, concluded that contaminated imported frozen seafood was the possible supply of the Beijing outbreak.

Jin, the virologist from the University of Hong Kong, stays skeptical. “This is a very weak paper. Nothing can be concluded from the study,” he mentioned.

In China, nonetheless, well being experts and state media have swiftly doubled down on the idea. Some even speculated that frozen meals imports may need precipitated the preliminary outbreak in Wuhan final December — a declare Jin and different main experts have dismissed as fully groundless.
Beijing orders importers to avoid frozen food from countries with major coronavirus outbreaks
Previously, Chinese media and officers have promoted unfounded claims that the coronavirus originated exterior of China — corresponding to in the United States, in half to deflect blame positioned on China for spreading the virus to the world.
Amid rising issues over frozen meals imports, on Chinese social media, some have called for the suspension of all such merchandise. But the Chinese CDC says the danger to customers is extraordinarily low.
There are different elements at play, too. Chinese experts have warned that an outright ban could be impractical doubtlessly even destabilizing, given the big demand for frozen merchandise from Chinese customers.
In 2019, China imported greater than 4.eight million metric tons of meat and 6.2 million metric tons of aquatic merchandise, state broadcaster CCTV reported, citing customs knowledge. To stabilize provides in the course of the pandemic, imports have soared even additional this 12 months, with 4.7 million metric tons of meat imported in the primary six months alone, in accordance to CCTV.

Is it attainable to catch Covid-19 from meals or packaging?

The coronavirus spreads principally individual to individual by respiratory droplets when an contaminated individual coughs, sneezes or talks. While it’s technically attainable to catch Covid-19 from meals or packaging, experts say it requires the convergence of a collection of low-probability occasions.

First, an contaminated employee would want to contaminate the meals or its packaging with a virus load excessive sufficient to trigger an an infection — probably by sneezing, coughing or shouting over it with out a face masks.

Then, the virus should survive the lengthy journey of worldwide transport and remain lively on the floor whereas ready to be unloaded and unpacked. From there, a meals handler on the receiving finish would have to contact the virus earlier than touching their nostril or mouth to change into contaminated.

Why you shouldn't be worried about getting the coronavirus from food

Previous research have proven the viability of novel coronavirus differs from hours to weeks, relying on a variety of elements, together with the temperature, humidity and how much floor it’s on.

One study printed in the New England Journal of Medicine, for instance, discovered that the virus can remain viable for up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless-steel at room temperature, whereas one other study in the Lancet discovered that interval to be up to six days.
The virus, which can survive higher in chilly and dry environments, may keep intact longer as temperature drops. “In general, coronaviruses are very stable in a frozen state according to studies of other coronaviruses, which have shown survival for up to two years at -20°C (-4°F),” the WHO has said. According to the Lancet study, the novel coronavirus can survive at 4°C (39°F) — the refrigerated temperature — — below excellent laboratory situations for greater than 14 days.

“Zero tolerance” method

Dale Fisher, an infectious illness specialist on the National University of Singapore, is finding out how lengthy the novel coronavirus can survive on refrigerated and frozen meat and salmon. His findings will probably be used to assess the potential of outbreaks emanating from imported meals.

He mentioned staff on the receiving finish of the meals shipments ought to follow good hygiene by preserving their work surfaces clear and washing their palms steadily. But he does not consider customers are prone to catching the virus from frozen or refrigerated meals packaging, as a result of each time the product will get moved round or touched, the virus will get diluted.

“Because if it’s uncommon for those early food handlers, then further down the list, when it’s been brushed, wiped, moved around, put on one shelf and moved to another shelf… it would be too diluted when it gets to (the consumers),” he mentioned.

In most international locations, even when imported frozen meals did infect a meals handler, it would not be seen due to the big quantity of lively circumstances, Fisher mentioned. “You’ll only notice it in countries with no cases,” he mentioned.

In August, when an outbreak ended New Zealand’s 100-day run with out neighborhood transmission, experts and authorities additionally suspected that the virus may need been launched by way of frozen meals, partly as a result of one of many earliest recognized carriers labored at a chilly storage facility. But an investigation subsequently ruled out that principle.

China, however, has doubled down on its scrutiny on abroad shipments. But the widespread screening China deploys won’t be relevant to different international locations the place infections are rampant, Fisher mentioned.

“Clearly, in the US and Europe, there’ll be absolutely no use in testing food, because there are so many cases spread by people,” he mentioned. “But China has really zero tolerance towards Covid-19.”

“When there are trillions of tons of food moving around the world, even an unlikely event will happen a few times.”

But even when there’s such a threat, there isn’t a want to ban meals imports, in accordance to Fisher.

“The intervention is just to make sure the source of the food has got Covid-safe measures so the food can’t be contaminated,” he mentioned. “We’re not saying stop sending food around the world.”

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