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Are Inbound Parcels Bringing COVID to China?


FILE - In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a staff member disinfects parcels at a community where a locally transmitted COVID-19 case was found, in Haidian district, Beijing, China, Jan. 18, 2022.

Chinese health officials are warning the public to minimize orders from overseas during the COVID-19 pandemic and wear protective gear when handling inbound packages, measures that followed a suspected transmission of the virus from North American parcels to two domestic patients.

When asked whether the virus could be transmitted via surfaces, however, two U.S. experts told VOA that it was unlikely.

People in Beijing and Shenzhen became infected with the omicron variant of COVID-19 after touching the parcels, the Chinese government's National Health Commission said on its website this week.

According to the website, the Shenzhen patient, a worker in a low-temperature-controlled supply chain, also known as a cold chain, came into contact with packages from North America on January 12. The Beijing patient touched the outer surface of a package and the top page of an enclosed document. The package was sent from Canada January 7 via Hong Kong.

According to the commission, Pang Xinghuo, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention, on Monday "reminded the public not to buy things too frequently from overseas during the pandemic and wear masks and disposable gloves when receiving mail from abroad."

Surface-to-human coronavirus transmission is improbable, researchers say.

A man gets a throat swab for a COVID-19 test at a mobile coronavirus testing facility in a residential area in Beijing, Jan. 19, 2022.
A man gets a throat swab for a COVID-19 test at a mobile coronavirus testing facility in a residential area in Beijing, Jan. 19, 2022.

"I feel that the emphasis on cold chains and international mail means that the investigators are not looking at [the] correct place," said Alina Chan, a molecular biologist and postdoctoral associate at the Broad Institute, which is backed by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Scientific literature written over the past two years points entirely to airborne transmission, Chan said.

"I think it is a mistake to tell people all these things and make them worry about the wrong things," Chan said. "You have people cleaning and scrubbing all the international mail instead of thinking properly for themselves, like, 'Should I be going to places where there might be a lot of travelers, a lot of tourists or people just come back from a business trip?' "

Emanuel Goldman, professor of microbiology, biochemistry and molecular genetics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, agreed. Some "artificial" lab experiments have implicated surfaces as a transmission source because "they used huge amounts of virus not related to the real-world levels that you would see," Goldman said.

He described the coronavirus as "fragile," meaning that "it dies quickly in the environment." People spread it by breathing, he added.

The National Health Commission of the People's Republic of China said close contacts of the two patients exposed to packages had tested negative for the coronavirus.

Inspectors in China, however, will intensify the disinfection of inbound packages, domestic news website Caixin Global reported Tuesday. That process will become the "latest in a long line of supply chain disruptions" for China, Caixin Global said.

Outside threat mentality

Leaders in China often blame outside factors for domestic issues, the Harvard Business Review said in a May 2021 report. The "threat from foreign powers" has been a theme over much of the nation's modern history, it said, and China's leaders "still blame foreign interference for many of their misfortunes."

Chinese officials are aiming for a country free of COVID-19, especially before the Beijing Winter Olympics February 4-20. Since December, they have locked down three cities to contain the spread.

According to China, it throttled the world's first COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020 and remained largely free of the disease until December 25 last year. The country's health commission reported 87 cases on Tuesday, following daily counts as high as 231 over the past three weeks.

Wang Yinan contributed to this report.

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