A foreign passenger goes through immigration and health checks in front of a scrum of Chinese customs officers in hazmat gear at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport. Photo: China News Service

Covid-19 may be quietly creeping back into China’s two largest urban centers – Shanghai and Beijing – after outbreaks at a key airport and a frozen food warehouse.

Cadres in charge of the megacities, each with a population of more than 20 million, have reputedly been told by the central leadership to nip the flare-ups in the bud, or risk demotion or even negligence charges.

Shanghai’s Pudong district is now in all-out mobilization to contain a possible ripple effect of infections, after the first case surfaced on Monday at the city’s major international airport.

The patient, a stevedore at an international freight forwarding center at Pudong Airport, has been confined to a negative pressure ward after his positive test panicked doctors when he visited a clinic near the airport with mild fever symptoms. 

An epidemiologist with Shanghai’s municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention told Asia Times that what worried them most was the obscure cause of the infection and if there had been a hidden chain of transmission at the airport or elsewhere in the city. 

Shanghai’s CDC said the patient had not handled any imported frozen food and thus the possibility of “cold chain contamination” could be ruled out.

Tainted food from overseas and viable coronavirus found on the packaging of chilled products have been suggested by the national CDC and state media as the likely source of sporadic outbreaks across the nation in the past few months.

The Shanghai CDC expert said he believed the pathogen that infected the stevedore could have been from abroad, now that China had largely banished the pandemic since April. 

About 26 close contacts of the patient, including his colleagues at the airport and family members, have been tracked down and put in quarantine.  

A customs officer at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport.
A passenger from an international flight walks past a channel for health inspection. All inbound passengers from abroad will be put in quarantine for two weeks. Photos: Xinhua, Asia Times

There are reports claiming an entire terminal at Pudong has been shut for disinfection, but Shanghai’s Airport Authority has denied the closure. 

Pudong is one of China’s largest international aviation gateways and is now receiving dozens of flights originating from countries still in the grip of the virus as Chinese nationals continue to rush home.

As a precaution to fend off the “backflow” of the contagion, all incoming passengers must present proof of two negative results in nucleic acid and serum antibody tests before boarding their flights and then undergo 14 days of quarantine at requisitioned hotels upon their arrival. 

State media including Xinhua once trumpeted the “time-tested, foolproof model of the totally sealed transportation, quarantine and accommodation” for all arrivals from overseas, which guaranteed no contacts with other passengers, local residents, customs officials or health inspectors at airports and border checkpoints in gateway cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. 

Yet the latest case has laid bare holes in the line of defense, and the worst-case scenario could be that the virus had, via the flow of passengers from Pudong airport, already crept into downtown Shanghai and neighboring populous provinces like Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui, according to Dr Zhang Wenhong, a well-known pulmonologist with Shanghai’s Huashan Hospital who heads an expert panel advising the city’s government. 

Shanghai is currently holding the annual China International Import Expo with about 400,000 professional visitors attending from home and abroad. 

A passenger from abroad is escorted by officers in protective gear to a special hall for quarantine procedures at Pudong Airport. Photo: China News Service
A photo showing a convoy of ambulances near an Air China jet from the US has gone viral. China says it has stringent procedures at airports to isolate inbound passengers from abroad to fend off the coronavirus. Photo: WeChat

Meanwhile, the specter of yet another resurgence has returned to haunt residents in Beijing, after the neighboring city of Tianjin confirmed one infection on Sunday. Part of Beijing was put under strict lockdown in June after a cluster of cases at the city’s major food wholesale market.  

Tianjin authorities said a truck driver had tested positive for the respiratory disease on Sunday after conveying frozen pork knuckles imported from Germany. Xinhua reported that the asymptomatic patient was confirmed after health inspectors in Shandong province found live coronavirus on the food packaging and notified a Tianjin cold chain warehousing center where the driver worked. 

Health officials in Beijing have now put themselves on a wartime footing to intercept and test shipments, as the frozen food storage center in Tianjin had also delivered consignments to supermarkets across the capital city. 

Although the theory of cold chain transmission is still a moot point among Western experts and the World Health Organization has advised against disinfecting food packaging, the Chinese State Council’s Covid-19 task force told all frontline health inspectors on Sunday to step up checks and disinfection of all imported food. 

Health inspectors across China are stepping up checks of foreign frozen food, believed to be the source of several infections, including one recent case in Tianjin. Photo: Xinhua

Under a new registration and tracking system put in place since this week, it will be the fault of health inspectors as well as importers and distributors of foreign frozen food if new imports are not reported to the authorities before they are allowed into China. It is said that China has drastically cut its import of chilled food from Southeast Asia, Europe and Brazil but the Commerce Ministry has denied any such curtailment.   

The Health Times, a publication by the National Health Commission, said the contaminated pork knuckles were imported from the city of Bremen and arrived in Tianjin on October 19 and that the virus must have stayed dormant on the packaging for no fewer than 20 days in transit.  

Thus far there has been no confirmation from the National Health Commission on more locally transmitted cases in Shanghai, Tianjin or Beijing, despite posts on WeChat and Weibo claiming further outbreaks, bigger lockdowns as well as extended community testing in these cities.

China reported 22 new cases on Monday, with the Shanghai airport stevedore case being the only local infection, according to the latest figures from the NHC. 

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