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China points to food imports as a possible source of contamination

While experts from the World Health Organization finally began on Friday their investigation into the origin of the virus – after fourteen days of quarantine and a one week delay in the allocation of visas –, China insists on contamination from abroad: travelers returning to China, or imported food. Beijing now imposes systematic tests on all products imported into the country, a cumbersome and costly process for importers. Chinese state media go further, suggesting that imported food is the source of the first contaminations in Wuhan.

Since the appearance of the virus in Wuhan, the state media and Chinese diplomats have widely relayed the theories of a foreign origin of the virus. In the spring, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian argued that the virus could have been brought to Wuhan by the US military during the Wuhan Military Games in October 2019. Imported food is the new theory fashionable. In December 2020, the nationalist daily Global Times has published several surveys on the subject. “With most of the first known cases being linked to the Huanan seafood market, contamination with imported frozen seafood makes sense”, says the daily, even if it recognizes that the evidence is lacking.

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Suspicions about frozen meat and fish date back to June 2020, in China: while the country succeeded in bringing the epidemic under control three months earlier, thanks to strict containment measures, a new outbreak appears in Xinfadi, a Beijing wholesale market. From hundreds of samples collected in the market, investigators find traces of the virus on cutting boards used for imported salmon. The virus, then explain the Chinese health authorities, could have been reintroduced in China by the cold chain, even if contamination by a visitor to the market is not excluded. Immediately, the imported salmon is removed from the stalls and sushi restaurants no longer serve the suspect fish.

“No evidence to date”

The authorities then order systematic tests on imported frozen products. Over the months, the virus is discovered in American pork, shrimp from Saudi Arabia, or Brazilian or New Zealand beef. In mid-October 2020, the city of Qingdao is testing its eleven million inhabitants to extinguish a home of 13 infected people. Here too, the link is made with imports of frozen foods: “The spread of the virus has been linked to two employees from the Qingdao port who unloaded imported products before testing positive on September 24,” explains the China Daily October 19. On October 16, the city’s health authorities announced that they had found the virus active for the first time in a sample taken from imported frozen food.

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