BEIJING • China is facing an increased risk of local transmission of the coronavirus in the winter due to imported cases as the spread of the global pandemic accelerates, a senior official at the country’s health authority has said.
In winter, there might be sporadic cases in some areas in China and some pocket cluster cases in others, Dr Li Bin, Vice-Minister of the National Health Commission (NHC), said at a press conference on Thursday.
“China’s epidemic prevention and control work cannot be relaxed for a single moment,” Dr Li said.
Countries such as India, Brazil and France are reporting tens of thousands of new infections daily.
By contrast, China has largely controlled the spread of the coronavirus since early summer, although clusters of community infections have periodically hit parts of the country, while imported cases among travellers arriving from abroad have risen.
Mr Yin Chengji, deputy commissioner of the National Immigration Administration, told reporters China has continued to halt issuing visas to some foreign nationals while restricting non-urgent outbound movements by Chinese citizens.
When asked if China would create so-called travel bubbles with countries less affected by the virus, Mr Luo Zhaohui, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, said now was not the right time.
“For closed-loop travel bubbles we do not deny this possibility, but we think the conditions are not right yet,” said Mr Luo.
He also warned Chinese citizens against outbound travel.
“Our advice is do not go overseas,” Mr Luo said.
In the past week, a handful of local cases linked to food imports have emerged in the northern port city of Tianjin, while an airport worker in Shanghai contracted the virus even though he has had no direct contact with infected patients.
Although the World Health Organisation says the risk of catching Covid-19 from frozen food is low, China has repeatedly sounded alarms after detecting the virus on packaging of products ranging from German pork knuckles to Ecuadorian shrimp, triggering disruptive import bans.
Mr Bi Kexin, an official at the General Administration of Customs, said at the same press conference on Thursday that the country has done random checks on more than 870,000 samples of imported frozen food. Imports of 99 suppliers from 20 countries have been suspended, according to the NHC.
China’s Customs office said yesterday that it will suspend imports from India’s Basu International for one week after detecting the virus on three samples taken from the outer packaging of frozen cuttlefish.
The Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected last year, also said it had detected Covid-19 on the packaging of a batch of Brazilian beef.
The beef had entered the country at Qingdao port on Aug 7 and it reached Wuhan on Aug 17, where it remained in a cold storage facility until recently.
China’s tightened cold chain guidelines call for “complete elimination” and “strict refusal of entry” of any products suspected of contact with the virus.
The rules require routine disinfection, including of inner and outer packaging, and blanket testing of imported goods.
Already, exporters whose products tested positive faced a week-long ban, extended to a month for third-time offenders.
“If it’s contaminated they return the whole of the food packaging. That’s their right, but I don’t think that’s very necessary. A decontamination process is already sufficient”, said Dr Jin Dong-Yan, a virology professor at the University of Hong Kong.