BEIJING (AP) – China says it detected the coronavirus on packages of imported frozen food, but how valid are its claims and how serious is the public health threat?
Frozen shrimp imported from an Ecuadorian company was banned for a week on Tuesday in a continuous series of such temporary bans.
While experts say the virus could survive in cardboard and plastic containers for a while, it is not yet clear how serious the risk is. Like the many issues surrounding the pandemic, the matter quickly became politicized.
China has rejected complaints from the United States and others, saying it puts people’s lives first. Experts say the presence of the virus on packaging is generally not considered a significant health risk.
An overview of the issue and some of the conclusions so far:
HISTORY OF CHINA
Packaging for the first time in China’s food wholesale markets related epidemics was the main problem, including in June on the outskirts of Beijing. This prompted the removal of smoked salmon from supermarket shelves and caused snowfalls on several occasions across the country, with chicken, beef and seafood from nearly two dozen countries. In some supermarkets, imported meat comes with a sticker that declares it virus-free.
Infections from shippers have also raised suspicions on packaging. However, inter-person transfers have not been ruled out and China has not yet provided evidence that the packaging was indeed a route of infection.
Trading partners, including the United States, New Zealand, Canada and the EU, say they are not clear on China’s methodology and have not seen solid evidence that their products carry the virus. The United States questioned whether China’s retaliation was scientifically justified and suggested that the bans should be seen as an unfair trade barrier.
Zhao Lijian, a Chinese State Department spokesman, called the U.S. allegations “completely unfounded and unreasonable.” China’s measures are “in the spirit of putting people’s lives first and protecting people’s health,” he said last week.
In a statement to the Associated Press, the World Health Organization said the presence of live viruses on packaging was “rare and isolated”. While the virus “can survive cold storage conditions for a long time,” there is no evidence that people get COVID-19 by consuming food, he claimed.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 spreads predominantly through respiratory droplets and smaller particles passing through the air, emphasizing the importance of wearing a mask.
However, the virus can also be present on surfaces, and public health officials have asked people to wash their hands carefully and avoid physical contact with others. In general, the colder and drier the conditions, the longer the virus can survive on surfaces.
Wiping worksheets, handrails, and other surfaces is a common way to ensure safety. Some have gone to extremes in disinfecting packages brought into their homes, either by themselves or through delivery services.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
Traces of virus on the packaging may be infectious or non-infectious. The highly sensitive tests used are able to detect both active viruses and their remnants without being able to differentiate them, said Timothy Newsome, a virologist at the University of Sydney.
“It’s possible and could mean some risk, but it’s certainly at the lower end of the transmission risk,” he said. “We know that low temperatures stabilize the virus. Nevertheless, I believe that the things transported and the surface transmission – the risk of this is low. “
A positive test “does not indicate an infectious virus, only that some sign of the virus is present on this surface,” said Andrew Pekos of Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.
“I didn’t see convincing evidence that SARS-CoV-2 on food packaging would pose a significant risk of infection,” he said.
Associated Press health and science writer Victoria Milko contributed to this report.