Coronavirus Beijing: Why an outbreak sparked a salmon panic in China

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Beijing has in days gone by week seen a spike of Covid-19 cases – almost all of that have been linked to a huge wholesale food market.

State media said the virus was discovered on chopping boards used for imported salmon at the Xinfadi market – sparking fears across the country.

Supermarkets and restaurants across Beijing hurried to pull salmon from their shelves, and imports from Europe were halted.

Then on Wednesday, it was announced that a 22-year-old man – proven to have periodically cleaned frozen seafood – had tested positive for the herpes virus in Tianjin, near Beijing.

But experts – and even China’s Centre for Disease Control (CDC) – have said that it is unlikely that salmon carried the virus.

So how and why did this panic emerge?

What happened in the market?

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Last Thursday, Beijing reported its first virus case after 57 days without a locally-transmitted infection.

Since then, very nearly 150 cases have been confirmed – the majority of which have been from the city’s largest wholesale market.

Xinfadi supplies 80% of Beijing’s veggies and meat and is employed by tens and thousands of people a day.

But unlike the marketplace in Wuhan, there is no proof of a wildlife trade in the Xinfadi market.

Traces of herpes were entirely on a chopping board employed by a seller of imported salmon, said reports.

But some 40 samples from the market tested positive for the virus – some of of not from chopping boards used to cut salmon, said a spokesman for Beijing’s Municipal Health Commission.

Could salmon be a host for the virus?

It’s very unlikely.

An official at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control said there is no evidence that salmon was the host – or even an intermediate host – for the virus.

Shi Guoqing, deputy director of the CDC’s emergency response centre, said there was no trace of the virus on the salmon before it reached the marketplace – suggesting the virus was present in the market, instead of in the salmon it self.

And industry experts agree.

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“Viruses must rely on the viral receptor on the host cell surfaces to infect cells. Without the certain receptor they cannot enter into cells successfully,” Cheng Gong, a virologist at Tsinghua University told CGTN.

“All known evidence so far suggests this kind of receptors exist only in mammals, not fish.”

However, the CDC’s chief epidemiologist, Wu Zunyou, said the fish could not catch the virus in their natural habitat – but added that it had been possible they certainly were contaminated by workers throughout their capture or transportation.

Overall, it is still unclear what the original way to obtain the virus is – or where it may have come from, though the WHO has said it can not be transmitted through food and drink to humans.

“Coronaviruses cannot multiply in food; they need an animal or human host to multiply,” the world wide health human body said in a document published on its web site.

It also said it had been “highly unlikely” that it could spread through food packaging.

Daily Beijing virus cases

Will this affect salmon imports worldwide?

China imports about 80,000 tons of chilled and frozen salmon every year from countries like Chile, Norway, the Faroe Islands, Australia and China, based on the Global Times.

The virus is not rampant in many of these countries – and Norway has said its salmon was not the foundation, after Norwegian salmon producers saw orders from China cancelled within the weekend.

Other countries around the world however, seem largely unfazed by the salmon speculation.

Hong Kong’s Centre for Food Safety confirmed that 16 types of imported salmon from countries including Chile, Iceland and Denmark all tested negative for the herpes virus.

Long queues were also seen outside sushi restaurants in the town.

Singapore’s Food Agency has additionally said there is no evidence that the herpes virus would be transmitted via food or even food packaging – though it said it could monitor “developments in this area”.

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