China: COVID and Food Markets

Published on June 15, 2020

Reports over the weekend of a new COVID-19 cluster outbreak in Beijing’s Xinfadi Wholesale Market – the largest agricultural produce market in all of Asia by trading volume – is a sobering reminder of the challenges that still lie ahead in the global war against the coronavirus pandemic.

Some seafood products including, but not limited to, salmon were pulled off store shelves across China after coronavirus was detected on an imported Norwegian salmon chopping board in the market.

*** But our understanding is that it is highly unlikely that imported fish is the source of the Xinfadi outbreak. A far more plausible explanation, according to Dr. Sarah Zaidi, the epidemiologist who has provided invaluable guidance on COVID-19 to SGH clients throughout the year, is that a local person or persons infected others, noting the insidious nature of a virus that displays no symptoms when people might be infectious, making it all that much more difficult to contain. The virus, Dr. Zaidi is convinced, remains endemic in China, and large food markets, which are often crowded and not well ventilated, provide a fertile environment for transmission. ***

On the heels of the outbreak last year of coronavirus in the Wuhan wet markets, however, even a simple Occam’s razor explanation like that might prove too embarrassing to Beijing.

An Aggressive Response

While the cause of the outbreak may remain yet to be determined, on Saturday, Premier Li Keqiang addressed the top municipal leadership of China’s four leading cities to discuss the new developments and response.

In his talk, Premier Li warned the municipal leaders that what is now happening in Beijing is very likely not the end of China’s domestic COVID-19 spread. Citing foreign sources of re-infection, perhaps especially pointed in light of Beijing’s claims to have controlled the domestic spread of the virus, Li warned that it is impossible for China to completely eradicate the virus when there are still many countries affected by COVID-19, and warned not to let the new local epidemic control mobilization measures that are being put in place bring a large-scale or even national panic.

Officials in Beijing have in parallel gone to great lengths to express confidence and stress progress in China’s epidemic prevention system since Wuhan, now focused on the prevention of imported infections. But they also note they may have overlooked other paths of entry for the virus, including the “imported meat transported through cold-chain logistics” that has been blamed by some, at least initially, for the latest outbreak.

The Beijing municipal government moved swiftly to lock the Xinfadi market down on Saturday, as well as locking down 11 “relevant communities” in Beijing, to avert a further spread of the virus into the city of over twenty million. Reportedly, over 10,880 people in Fengtai district, home to the market, have undergone nucleic acid testing for the virus, and the stated goal is to test 46,000 residents in the vicinity. Beijing, officials note, has 98 institutions qualified for nucleic acid testing, with a daily capacity for over 90,000 tests.

But perhaps most important of all is the question of whether and if so how COVID-19 could indeed be transmitted through imported food, as was being hypothesized here?

In what we understand the unlikely case that was to be true, it would pose an enormous new challenge to commerce, and to the reopening of society at large. If, as believed, the spread was through “normal” human transmission, it may bear out the hypothesis that the virus remains more locally endemic, and dangerous, than officially reported in China.

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