Why China keeps returning to a questionable theory about its COVID-19 outbreaks

November 21, 2020, 11:30 AM UTC

For months now, cities in China have tied fresh outbreaks of COVID-19 to imported frozen food, despite scientific evidence that suggests such goods are unlikely to spread the disease. Now, the mainland’s trade partners are pushing back on China’s protective measures against frozen food contamination, such as excessive screening of meat imports.

“China’s most recent COVID-19 restrictions on imported food products are not based on science and threaten to disrupt trade,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture said this week. When Chinese authorities find traces of COVID-19 on food packets, it can lead to a blockade on that particular exporter or an unofficial boycott of the produce, jeopardizing revenue.

On Wednesday, China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian pushed back against the U.S. complaints calling them “groundless and unreasonable” while also calling China’s testing of frozen food imports “reasonable and justified.” But the U.S. isn’t the only one with gripes.

Several major food exporting countries, led by Canada, complained at a World Trade Organization meeting this month that China’s screening procedures amount to “unjustified restrictions on trade,” according to Reuters.

China has been investigating the potential for COVID-19 to be imported along with frozen food shipments since June, when an outbreak in Beijing was traced to a frozen fish stall at a wet market. The suggestion that coronavirus had found its way into the mainland on fish packets sparked a boycott of Norwegian salmon imports, even as Chinese authorities downplayed the risk of infection.

Since then, at least 10 cities across China say they have found traces of COVID-19 on the packaging of frozen food imports. Often the discovery prompts a dramatic lockdown of the city in question, as China operates a near zero tolerance approach to outbreaks.

But while China keeps finding COVID-19 on its food imports, there are few reports of other countries experiencing the same. And China’s insistence that it’s importing the virus through food is helping bolster a theory that the original outbreak in Wuhan’s fish market was imported too.

In August, New Zealand investigated whether an outbreak traced to a worker at a cold chain logistics company could be linked to frozen food imports, but authorities found no evidence that the virus had arrived in a frozen container. Meanwhile Taiwan, which imports some $11 billion of agricultural goods a year, has gone over 200 days without a single case of COVID-19.

Laboratory tests have shown that the coronavirus can survive at least 14 days in sub-zero temperatures—so it is feasible for traces of the virus to survive weeks-long voyages in frozen food containers. But epidemiologists say the risk of outbreak from frozen food packages is low because the virus has to enter a person’s body to infect them, so proper hand washing practices should be enough to prevent it.

But China is going a step further; it introduced new sanitization protocols for frozen food shipments last week. The guidance, released by the National Health Commission, calls for frozen food packaging and the vehicles transporting them to be disinfected before the goods are unloaded.

Meanwhile, Chinese customs authorities continue to test frozen food shipments.

Under Beijing’s central regulations, if a single positive coronavirus result is found on an exporter’s products, authorities can suspend shipments of its goods for a week. If an exporter gets three positive tests, its shipments can be suspended for a month. But exporting countries argue that Chinese authorities never share evidence of the contamination, according to Reuters.

Most recently China’s eastern city of Jinan claimed it found COVID-19 samples on beef imports from New Zealand, Bolivia, and Brazil. Days later New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern disputed the report and said her government had “been advised” that Chinese authorities had simply found traces of COVID-19 on Argentinian meat imports in the same cold storage facility as Kiwi imports.

“This is incredibly important to New Zealand. We are confident that our products do not, and are not, exported with signs of COVID on them given our status as essentially being COVID-free,” Ardern said. New Zealand on Friday reported three new cases of COVID in the past 24 hours.

Authorities in Jinan said they tested 7,500 people who may have come in contact with the contaminated imports and found no positive cases.

China’s reported findings of COVID-19 on frozen food imports, however, have fueled a theory that the initial outbreak in Wuhan—generally thought of as ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic—was also imported via frozen food.

The majority of Wuhan’s first coronavirus patients were traced to the Huanan Seafood market and, according to China’s nationalist tabloid Global Times, “COVID-19 patients were concentrated among frozen seafood vendors at Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market.”

Beijing has long argued that while it was the first country to document an outbreak of the novel SARS-COV 2 virus, COVID-19, that doesn’t mean the virus necessarily originated there. Certainly, some reports have found evidence that COVID-19 was circulating outside of China before November last year, when China claims to have found its first coronavirus case.

Just this week, The National Cancer Institute in Milan issued a report that found COVID-19 was likely circulating in Italy as early as September last year.

How the virus occurred in Italy in the first place is still unknown. Details around the outbreak in Wuhan are still largely unverified too. The World Health Organization dispatched a team to China in February to investigate the early spread of the virus, but the probe did not identify the virus’s origin due to reported concessions the WHO officials made to Beijing.