Beijing Fights Virus Outbreak, Wary Europe Reopens Borders

Residents line up to get tested at a coronavirus testing center set up outside a sports facility in Beijing on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

(CN) — The challenges of living in a globalized world and containing the spread of the new coronavirus are coming into stark focus this week after Chinese authorities announced a new outbreak in Beijing possibly linked to salmon imported from Europe.

Meanwhile, New Zealand, which had declared itself free of the virus earlier this month, reported two travelers from the United Kingdom had brought the virus with them.

Europe now faces seeing a resurgence of Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, after many of the borders between European Union countries were opened Monday, a move that will both kick start summer tourism but also facilitate the spread of the virus on a continent where hundreds of new cases are still being reported each day.

But it’s the outbreak in Beijing that highlights the risk countries face in seeing the disease resurface after seeming to have contained it. Beijing, China’s densely populated capital, had not reported a new virus case for 56 days before announcing last week the discovery of a cluster of cases linked to the sprawling and bustling Xinfadi seafood market.

By Tuesday, Chinese authorities were taking sweeping efforts to rein in the outbreak, which they said appeared to be caused by a strain similar to one circulating in Europe.

About 90,000 people living near the market and a second market are being tested for the virus; the Xinfadi seafood market was closed and officials overseeing its management fired; stocks of European salmon were dumped and new imports blocked; and several neighborhoods close to the market were placed under restrictions. Also, Chinese officials are tracking down people potentially exposed to the virus. By Tuesday, China had reported more than 100 new cases.

Chinese officials said it was possible the virus had been imported on salmon from Europe, but that theory remained to be validated. Chinese officials said they found traces of the virus on cutting boards used to handle imported fish at the market. Until now, the virus has not been found to be carried long distances on food products. Instead, health experts generally agree it is mostly transmitted between humans.

Tourists sit at the beach of Palma de Mallorca, Spain, on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Joan Mateu)

“Obviously we need to look at the issue of food or food packaging,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, the head of emergencies at the World Health Organization, on Monday during a news conference at its headquarters in Geneva.

But he doubted the Beijing outbreak was linked to imported seafood. “It is not the primary hypothesis in this case, but it needs to be explored,” he said.

Some health experts think the Beijing cases may be linked to people traveling from Europe. China has not yet made public the analysis of the virus strain found in Beijing, which reportedly is similar to strains found in Europe.

Ryan added that the risk of the virus being transported on food and packaging can be curtailed with disinfection.

But he said the outbreak in a large city like Beijing is a concern, especially because health authorities have yet to determine how it began.

“As we’ve seen in many countries, the emergence of new clusters, especially when the origin of the cluster, or the driver of cluster, is not recognized, is always a concern,” he said.

“When you spent over 50 days without having any significant local transmission, a cluster like this is a concern and it needs to be investigated and controlled, and that’s exactly what the Chinese authorities are doing,” he added.

The outbreak is also an embarrassment for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who touts China’s success at suppressing the virus after it emerged in December in the industrial city of Wuhan in central China. He pledged to make sure Beijing, the seat of the Communist Party, would not become a hot spot of the virus. But now the notion that Beijing is a fortress against the virus has been damaged.

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on the pandemic, said the new cases in Beijing underscores how every country is at risk of new outbreaks.

“All countries need to remain at the ready,” she said, adding countries need to be able to act quickly to stamp out a resurgence.

This is playing out in New Zealand, where officials said they found two women infected with Covid-19. The women are part of the same family and came into New Zealand from the U.K. via Australia.

New Zealand hadn’t reported any new cases for 24 days before these new cases. On June 8, New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, declared the virus defeated and lifted restrictions.

Still, the chances of the virus spreading in New Zealand seem very small because the two women were put as required in isolation after arriving and did not travel on public transportation once they were in New Zealand, officials said. However, they were allowed to exit isolation in order to visit a dying relative, according to Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, the director-general of health. Officials are tracking down people who were on the same flight as the women from Australia and other people who may have been in contact with them.

Now, Europe will be tested on how ready it is to detect infections and prevent flare-ups. On Monday, many of the borders inside the EU were opened in anticipation of the summer holiday season when holidaymakers scramble all over the continent. Restrictions remain at the EU’s external borders, though those restrictions are due to be eased in July.

“Careful opening of countries and opening of their borders with neighboring countries is something that can be done, but again it must be done in a measured, planned, step-wise fashion,” Ryan said.

He said countries need to have “in place the public health and other measures” to prevent new outbreaks.

Globally, more than 8 million infections have been found and more than 437,500 have died. The pandemic is raging in the Americas but the number of infections is rising in many other parts of the world, such as in India, the Middle East and Africa. More than 100,000 new cases are reported almost each day, the WHO says.  

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union. 

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