Chinese health officials have claimed that the highly transmissible Omicron version of COVID-19 may have arrived in the capital Beijing via a corrupted letter from Canada – a claim dismissed and questioned by Canadian experts.
The Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control (BCDC) said in a news release on Monday that the first case of the Omicron variant in a Beijing resident may have been the result of international mail sent from Canada to the United States and via Hong Kong.
The BCDC said the letter was sent on January 7 and received on January 11.
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The agency claimed that an extensive investigation, samples and tests of mailed papers showed traces of the Omicron variant.
It added that the person who tested positive had not done international or domestic travel for 14 days before getting infected.
The BCDC said, “In summary, with the epidemiological history of the case, the test results of the suspect objects and the gene sequencing results of the case samples, the possibility of contracting the virus through foreign objects cannot be ruled out.” “
It urged residents to minimize purchases of foreign goods and wear masks and disposable gloves when receiving international mail.
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Beijing confirmed its first local case of Omicron on Saturday, weeks before the city is scheduled to host the Winter Olympics in February.
In addition to Beijing, China has reported locally transmitted infections of the Omicron variant in at least four other provinces and municipalities: in the northern city of Tianjin, the central province of Henan, the southern province of Guangdong and the northeastern province of Liaoning. However, the total number of omicron cases across China is unclear.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), COVID-19 can be spread through indirect contact with contaminated surfaces, also known as fomite transmission.
But current evidence suggests that the virus is mainly transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets, the WHO says on its website.
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An infectious disease specialist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., Dr. Gerald Evans said it was “impossible” that there would be any infectious virus on a piece of Canadian mail that remained intact as a result of a COVID-19 transmission event. in China.
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“SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, does not survive in an infectious form for very long outside an infected host or person,” he told Global News in an email.
Evans cited a study released last week by the University of Bristol that showed the virus lost 90 percent of its infectivity after 20 minutes in particulates inhaled by an infected person, with most of the loss occurring in the first five minutes.
Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, also said China’s claims do not add up.
“It doesn’t seem credible at all,” he told Global News in an email.
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Furness said that while the ability of COVID-19 to survive on paper partly depends on the roughness of the paper, it is unlikely to remain active for more than a day or two.
“A mailbag in high friction with other documents is unlikely to survive a day,” he explained.
Dr. Horacio Bach, an infectious disease specialist at the University of British Columbia, said that while omicron is highly transmitted, it is spreading in the same way as in previous forms – that is, from person to person.
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Canada Post says the WHO and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) have given public assurances that the risks involved in handling mail, including international mail, are low.
“According to PHAC, there is no known risk of coronavirus entering Canada on a parcel or package,” it said in a statement on its website.
“Currently, there is no evidence of COVID-19 being transmitted through imported goods or packages.”
What is Canada’s response?
At a news conference on Monday, Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the claim that a piece of Canadian mail offered an Omicron edition to Beijing was “an extraordinary sight.”
He said that while he may have his own opinion as to why China is making this claim, he deferred to experts how COVID-19 can be spread.
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“We will investigate with authorities around the world and our partners,” Duclos said.
“I think this is not only something new, but interesting and certainly not in line with what we have done internationally and domestically.”
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Conservative leader Erin O’Toole slammed it as “humorous”.
“Obviously, we are very concerned with the variants within the pandemic that have come from outside Canada that we have to deal with here,” O’Toole said during a news conference on Monday.
“Stories like these remind us that from the start of the pandemic, some news and reporting out of China could not be trusted.”
— With files from the Canadian Press, Reuters
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