Health officials prepare to test Beijing residents for the coronavirus. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun / AFP

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Controversy has become just as virulent as the Covid-19 outbreak in Beijing amid fears of a second wave in China.

With close to 140 cases now reported from the Chinese capital, there are mounting concerns that the world’s second-largest economy is facing a mutating microscopic enemy.

Speculation has increased that a new version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has emerged. Officials have pointed out that the “genome” strands closely match European or Russian strains.

“[It] resembles the virus strains in Europe the most, which, however, doesn’t mean that it came from Europe,” Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told state broadcaster CCTV.

“We came up [with] several possibilities, and the most likely one is that the carrier comes from outside China or other parts of China and brought it here,” Wu said.

Clinical tests have shown that the “sequencing” is different from the pathogen that surfaced in Wuhan last year, which triggered the global pandemic.

“The coronavirus found in Beijing is extremely contagious, likely more contagious than that found in Wuhan,” Yang Zhanqiu, the deputy director of the pathogen biology department at Wuhan University, told China’s state-run media.

But the science is still not conclusive after the outbreak was traced back to Beijing’s Xinfadi market. Stretching over one square kilometer, or half-a-mile, it is the largest of its kind in Asia.

Media reports have suggested that the virus was found on chopping boards used to cut up imported salmon, sparking the “mutation” claims.

Earlier this week, Shi Guoqing, the deputy director of Beijing’s Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, confirmed there was “no evidence” that salmon was the host or intermediate host. 

Shi suggested the new outbreak appeared to be linked to human-to-human transmission and contaminated goods. But he did not rule out that this could be a different strain of the pathogen.

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In April, early findings released by the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States showed that scientists had discovered a new variant of Covid-19. The preprint white paper revealed that it appeared in Europe back in February and quickly became the “dominate form.”

Significantly, it infected far more people than the “earlier strain” that came out of China, the study stated. Within weeks, it was the only variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in certain infected countries before “migrating” to the east coast of the US.

“The story is worrying, as we see a mutated form of the virus very rapidly emerging, and over the month of March becoming the dominant pandemic form,” team leader Bette Korber, a computational biologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, wrote on Facebook before the research had been peer-reviewed.

Scientists have since questioned the study. But a team from Scripps Research in the US found that a mutation in one strain could make it more virulent.

“Viruses with this mutation were much more infectious than those without the mutation in the cell culture system we used. The number – or density – of functional spikes on the virus is 4 or 5 times greater due to this mutation,” Hyeryun Choe, a research virologist at Scripps Research, said in a statement earlier this week.

“All viruses acquire minute genetic changes as they reproduce and spread. Those changes rarely impact fitness or ability to compete. The SARS-CoV-2 variant that circulated in the earliest regional outbreaks lacked the D614G mutation now dominating in much of the world,” Choe added.

Moreover, this could explain why infection rates were higher in parts of Europe, such as the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and France, as well as the United States.

“[But] much more data, ideally under controlled studies, are needed [to pinpoint exactly how the mutation mushroomed into a pandemic],” Choe said.

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Still, the Beijing outbreak has quickly spread. Hebei, Liaoning, Sichuan and Zhejiang provinces have rolled out quarantine measures after confirming cases linked to the cluster at the Xinfadi market.

As for the capital, up to 30 communities are now in a state of lockdown. Travel restrictions have also been put in place for the city’s 21 million population with more than 1,200 flights from Beijing’s main airports canceled.

In a move to contain the rate of infections, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that 90,000 people a day are being tested.

“The epidemic situation is extremely severe,” Xu Hejian, a Beijing city spokesman, said at a media briefing on Tuesday.

So far, the Covid-19 carnage has claimed nearly 440,000 lives and infected more than 8.1 million people worldwide since January. The China numbers are 83,265 infections with a 4,634 death toll. 

At the same time, vaccine research has accelerated across the globe in the past three months with clinical trials taking place in Europe, the United States and China.

Even so, dramatic mutations in SARS-CoV-2 could produce a different set of challenges.

“No doubt different genotypes of the virus can cause the vaccine to be less effective or even ineffective. That means the vaccine would have to be effective against both viruses circulating in China and those in Europe, adding difficulty to developing a vaccine,” Yang, of the pathogen biology department at Wuhan University, said.

In the meantime, claims of a mutating pathogen have certainly spooked Beijing.

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