Should the World Be Worried About the 'Explosive' New Outbreak of Coronavirus in Beijing?
As reports of a new COVID-19 outbreak appear on a Beijing market, the strength of Chinese officials' response to public health is only surpassed by the severity of their language.
Since 106 new cases around the Xinfadi food wholesale in the southwestern Beijing district of Fengtai - after 56 days without new infections - the Chinese capital has entered the so-called "war mode". Around 100,000 disease control workers were deployed, at least 29 local communities were closed, schools and sports facilities closed, and various officials fired.
"Beijing is facing explosive and concentrated outbreaks," Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), on Monday. Around 90,000 people on the battlefield of the market need to be tested.
The new outbreak, which first occurred on June 11, may already be subsiding. After peaking with 36 new cases reported on both June 13th and June 14th, that number dropped to 27 on Monday (although four cases were reported in neighboring Hebei Province, another one in Sichuan.)
However, China's discomfort is understandable. The Xinfadi market is the largest of its kind in Asia. It extends over 112 hectares and supplies 80% of Beijing's agricultural products and food to other populous northern provinces. The potential of thousands of vendors and employees to host and transmit corona viruses is worrying. Echoes of the Wuhan outbreak that started in a large market are also unfortunate.
A vigorous response is crucial for the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which has built up a lot of domestic capital by declaring "victory" over the virus while the founders of the West (and particularly the United States). "The security and stability of" Beijing "directly affects the broader prospects for the party and the country," said China's strong President Xi Jinping in February.
"They want to send a very strong signal to local government officials that making sure that there are no new cases or deaths remains a top priority," said Dr. Yanzhong Huang, a public health expert at the Council for Foreign Relations in New York City,
Local authorities in many parts of China have now imposed quarantine requirements on visitors from Beijing and warned the residents about non-essential trips to the capital. Reports that a batch of imported Norwegian salmon may have been the cause of the outbreak have resulted in fish being dropped from supermarket shelves across the country and imported food generally being overshadowed.
Yang Peng, a member of the Coronary Pneumonia Prevention Group at Beijing Disease Control Center, told China's state-run CCTV broadcaster, "The preliminary assessment is that it is an import, and it could be contaminated seafood or meat . "
Further outbreaks expected
New outbreaks of coronaviruses were reported as countries eased lockdowns - even those that acted quickly and decisively in the earliest stages of the pandemic. Despite a widely acclaimed COVID-19 response, South Korea saw an increase in a nightclub in Seoul in May. In Australia, at least 71 people associated with a Melbourne meat processing center tested positive in the same month. New Zealand's 24-day series ended on Tuesday with no new cases after two new infections were reported in returning travelers from the UK.
There are of course additional risks if you are the most populous and best trading nation in the world. Prof. Ben Cowling, head of epidemiology and biostatistics at Hong Kong University, expects further outbreaks in other large cities in China in the coming weeks or months.
"It looks like the Chinese government is stopping the spread pretty aggressively, but that will have other implications," he said. "It will be very, very disruptive for business if factories that are just getting back on their feet have to be closed again."
The salmon compound is most likely a “red herring,” added Cowling dryly. Although the virus was found on a filleting board in the market, the fish's supplies themselves were tested negative, as were other foods on the market, which means that a worker was more the source of the contamination. (In addition, no confirmatory coronavirus outbreaks have been reported in salmon farms in Europe.) Some Chinese experts have meanwhile weighed on insisting that no COVID-19 was found in fish.
The Chinese government's insistence on labeling this as an imported infection - the genome appears to correspond more closely to European strains than the one first discovered in Wuhan - contributes to the perception that imported goods are unsafe.
According to local news, China imports about 80,000 tons of chilled and frozen salmon from Chile, Norway, the Faroe Islands, Australia and Canada each year. But now "We are receiving reports of cancellations of orders [from China] for fresh salmon to enter the market due to the measures now being taken to test food," Victoria Braathen, Fisheries Representative of the Norwegian Seafood Council, told Norway's state broadcaster NRK.
In the meantime, some experts believe Beijing is pressing the panic button.
Huang cited the few hospitalizations and no deaths as an indication that this recent outbreak may not be particularly large, and calls for a more moderate response. The right policy now is to learn to live with the virus and to recognize that small outbreaks are inevitable.
"The government should learn to reconcile public health with preparation for economic and social recovery," he said. "I'm a little confused about this overreaction."
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