Chinese health authorities have claimed that the highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19 may have arrived into the capital, Beijing, via a contaminated letter from Canada — an assertion dismissed and questioned by Canadian experts.
The Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control (BCDC) said in a news release Monday that its first case of the Omicron variant in a Beijing resident could be the result of international mail sent from Canada via the United States and Hong Kong.
The letter was sent on Jan. 7 and received on Jan. 11, the BCDC said.
The agency claimed that a comprehensive investigation, sampling and testing of the mailed papers showed traces of the Omicron variant.
The person who tested positive had not travelled internationally or domestically 14 days prior to being infected, it said.
“To sum up, combined with the epidemiological history of the case, the test results of suspicious items, and the gene sequencing results of the case specimens, the possibility of contracting the virus through foreign items cannot be ruled out,” the BCDC stated.
It urged residents to minimize the purchase of overseas goods and to wear masks and disposable gloves when receiving international mail.
Beijing confirmed its first local case of Omicron on Saturday, weeks before the city is set to host the Winter Olympics in February.
Aside from 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 Omicron cases across China remains unclear.
What do experts say?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), COVID-19 can spread through indirect contact with contaminated surfaces, also known as fomite transmission.
But current evidence suggests that the virus is predominantly transmitted from person to person via respiratory droplets, WHO says on its website.
Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease specialist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said it was “implausible” that a piece of mail from Canada would have any infectious virus on it that survived intact to result in a COVID-19 transmission event in China.
“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 that the virus loses 90 per cent of its infectivity after 20 minutes in respiratory particles exhaled by a infected person, with the majority of that 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 don’t add up.
“This doesn’t sound credible at all,” he told Global News in an email.
Furness said while COVID-19’s ability to survive on paper depends partly on the roughness of the paper, it’s unlikely to persist in an active state for more than a day or two.
“High friction with other documents in a mailbag make survival of even a day seem unlikely,” he explained.
Dr. Horacio Bach, an infectious diseases expert at the University of British Columbia, said while Omicron is more transmissible, it is spreading in the same way as previous variants — namely, from person to person.
Canada Post says that the WHO and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) have made public assurances that the risk when handling mail, including international mail, is low.
“According to the PHAC, there is no known risk of coronaviruses entering Canada on parcels or packages,” a statement on its website says.
“Currently, there is no evidence of COVID-19 being transmitted by imported goods or packages.”
What is Canada’s response?
In a news conference on Monday, Federal Health Minster Jean-Yves Duclos said the assertion that a piece of Canadian mail introduced the Omicron variant to Beijing was “an extraordinary view.”
He said that while he may have his own opinion of why China was making that claim, he deferred to experts on how COVID-19 can be spread.
“We’ll check with officials and our partners around the world,” Duclos said.
“I think this is something not only new, but intriguing and certainly not in accordance with what we have done both internationally and domestically.”
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole slammed it as “comical”.
“Obviously, we’re very concerned with variants within the pandemic, variants that have come from outside of Canada that we have to deal with here,” O’Toole said during a news conference Monday.
“Stories like this remind us that from the beginning of the pandemic, some of the news and reporting out of China could not be trusted.”
— with files from the Canadian Press, Reuters