Health

WHO says new virus outbreak in China needs further testing after 'hypothesis' on cause

The origins of a new cluster of coronavirus infections in Beijing are uncertain, World Health Organization officials said on Monday, but the claim that it might have been caused by imports or packaging of salmon was not the "primary hypothesis."

Initial claim was that it may have been caused by imported salmon or its packaging

People wearing face masks walk through a train station in Beijing on Monday. China's capital was bracing for a resurgence of the coronavirus after more than 100 new cases were reported in recent days in a city that hadn't seen a case of local transmission in more than a month. (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

The origins of a new cluster of coronavirus infections in Beijing are uncertain, World Health Organization (WHO) officials said on Monday, but the claim that it might have been caused by imports or packaging of salmon was not the "primary hypothesis."

Several districts of the Chinese capital put up security checkpoints, closed schools and ordered people to be tested for the coronavirus on Monday after an unexpected rise in cases linked to the biggest wholesale food market in Asia.

State-run newspapers reported that the virus was discovered on chopping boards used for imported salmon at Beijing's Xinfadi market amid worries about a second wave of the pandemic in China.

Mike Ryan, head of the WHO's emergencies program, stopped short of saying packaging needs to be tested systematically following the new infections.

"I think we need to look at what has happened in this case. I don't believe it is the primary hypothesis. But it needs to be explored," Ryan said in a briefing.

Disease clusters, like the COVID-19 one in Beijing, offer a unique opportunity to understand transmission better, says the World Health Organization.   3:16

His comments echoed those of experts earlier on Monday who said the fish itself was unlikely to carry the disease, and any link to salmon may have been the result of cross-contamination.

China, a major importer of seafood and meat, has halted purchases from European salmon suppliers because of fears they might be linked to a coronavirus.

Likely to draw criticism

Ryan said the UN agency was closely tracking the outbreak, has offered more technical help to China and was in close contact with the Beijing authorities as they seek to control it.

"As we've seen in many countries, the emergence of new clusters — especially when the origin of the cluster, the driver of the cluster, is not recognized — is always a concern," he said.

"But what we do like to see is an immediate response to that and a comprehensive set of measures."

Ryan said he "fully expects" China to publish the genetic sequencing of the virus from the Beijing outbreak as it has done in the past. Genetic traces have suggested it could have come from Europe.

The WHO's comments about the latest episode in China will likely draw scrutiny after criticism from the United States about the UN agency's handling of the pandemic, accusing it of being "China-centric" and demanding an investigation.

President Donald Trump said last month he was cutting ties with the organization.

More than 100 cases have been confirmed in the new outbreak but no reported deaths, WHO officials said.

"The finding that this may represent a strain more common in transmission in Europe is important, and it may reflect human-to-human transmission more than any other hypotheses," Ryan said. "But that remains to be seen."

He also said the agency may boost its country office team with more expertise in the coming days as the investigation develops.

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