China releases genome data for Beijing cluster as experts probe ‘severely contaminated’ market

The latest outbreak of coronavirus in Beijing may have come from Europe, Chinese authorities say, as the number of cases linked to the city’s sprawling Xinfadi food market nears 200.

Genome sequencing data published by China on Friday showed the virus shared some similarities with European strains, experts said.

“According to preliminary genomic and epidemiological study results, the virus is from Europe,” Zhang Yong, an official from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wrote in an article.

“But it is different from the virus currently spreading in Europe … it’s older than the virus currently spreading in Europe,” he added.

Another 25 cases were confirmed in Beijing on Friday, taking the total number of infections since last week to 183.

Tens of thousands of people are now being tested for the contagion, while neighbourhoods have been locked down and schools closed as experts investigate whether a “superspreader” may have been involved.

China’s Global Times reported more than 200 samples had been taken from the market by Friday and “many” had tested positive for the virus.

It quoted an expert from the CDC who described the site as “severely contaminated”.

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Experts say there are several ways the virus may have arrived in China.

“It could have been hidden in imported frozen food products, or it was lurking in some dark and humid environment such as Xinfadi, with the environment not having been disinfected or sterilised,” Mr Zhang said.

The virus was initially detected on chopping boards used to handle imported salmon at the market.

But Wu Zunyou, the CDC’s chief epidemiology expert, told state media earlier this week that while the Beijing strain was similar to Europe’s, it was not necessarily directly transmitted from European countries.

Ben Cowling, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, told the AFP news agency it was possible the virus had travelled from Wuhan to Europe and back to China.

The genome data has also been shared with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the international scientific community.

The Xinfadi market supplies more than 70 per cent of Beijing’s fresh produce and has been temporarily closed due to the cluster.

In response to the outbreak, Beijing officials have advised citizens to dispose of frozen seafood and bean products bought from the site.

China has also launched a nationwide campaign to inspect food imports coming from “high-risk countries”.

The products include seafood, meat and frozen vegetables, Song Yueqian, an official at the General Administration of Customs, said at a press conference.

On Thursday, he said authorities had inspected 15,638 samples — all of which tested negative.

Beijing has also suspended several bus routes between the city and the surrounding Hebei province, over fears the outbreak is spreading beyond the capital.

The resurgence came after China had largely brought the virus under control and eased restrictions on movement inside the country.

There are now 293 people ill with COVID-19 in China, the highest number since early May.

– With wires

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