A new outbreak of coronavirus in Beijing, China, is claiming an unexpected victim: imported salmon.
On Sunday, Beijing authorities confirmed 59 new cases of coronavirus, which brings the number of active infections in the city to 80. The outbreak marks the city’s first reports of locally-transmitted infections in two months. In total, Beijing has reported 673 infections and nine deaths since the pandemic first broke out in late January.
Authorities believe the cases can all be traced to Xinfadi, a large wholesale meats and vegetables market in the southern city district of Fengtai that supplies 70% of the city’s produce. Public health officials investigating the outbreak found traces of the virus on a cutting board from a seller of imported salmon at the now-closed market, a government official said on Saturday. The disclosure sparked fears that salmon imported from Europe may be contaminated with the virus, putting in jeopardy China’s $700 million market for the fish.
Supermarkets across Beijing have removed salmon from their shelves and traders elsewhere in China temporarily stopped importing salmon, even as public health authorities downplayed the likelihood of salmon as a virus carrier. They’ve have cautioned that, while technically possible, it is unlikely that imported salmon caused the new outbreak.
“Our seafood products are typically stored and transported in cold containers, thus it is possible for the virus to be preserved for a long time and increase the likelihood of infecting people,” said Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “[But] we cannot conclude that salmon is the source of infection just because novel coronavirus was detected on a chopping board of a seller.”
Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at Hong Kong University, said that it’s “very unlikely” the disease came from salmon.
Still, the backlash against salmon in China was almost immediate.
“There is zero demand for salmon now. Deliveries have stopped. But I think this will blow over,” a salmon trader in the southern city of Xiamen told the Australian Financial Review on Monday.
As the largest exporters of salmon to China, Chile, Norway, Australia, and Denmark are set to be hardest hit by the sudden drop in demand.
The Global Times, a Chinese nationalist tabloid, fueled the salmon speculation on Sunday when it floated two possible explanations for the new Beijing cluster: that it came from imported seafood or from infected humans who entered the market.
“It’s much more likely that there was an infected person,” Cowling says.
Origins aside, the new outbreak in Beijing has forced the capital into “wartime emergency mode” to contain the spread, local official Chu Junwei said at Saturday briefing.
In response to the outbreak, Beijing officials have embarked on a massive contact tracing and testing campaign for people with links to the market. Authorities converted a sports stadium into a COVID-19 testing center, and on Sunday alone reportedly tested 76,499 people who had visited Xinfadi.
As of Monday, Beijing had placed 20 residential compounds surrounding the market under lockdown and instituted new restrictions on nearby neighborhoods, such as barring non-residents from entering.
Even in this early stage of the outbreak, the city government has punished several officials for allowing the virus to spread. On Monday, it dismissed the manager of the market and two local district government officials for failing to implement proper COVID-19 prevention and control measures, according to Chinese state media.
Provinces surrounding Beijing have warned residents against traveling to the capital city; new cases in nearby Liaoning and Hubei, and Sichuan provinces are believed to have ties to Beijing’s outbreak.
The outbreak and state efforts to associate it with an imported good speak to the nationalist nature of China’s battle against the coronavirus. Beijing has touted its early containment of the virus, first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan, as proof that its authoritarian style of government is superior to Western democracies like the United States. Every new outbreak of coronavirus in China is a threat to that claim.