China publishes Beijing Covid-19 genome data, officials suggest a European strain

Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention official Zhang Yong said the the virus is older than that currently spreading in Europe.
Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention official Zhang Yong said the the virus is older than that currently spreading in Europe.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China has made public genome sequencing data for the coronavirus responsible for the most recent outbreak in Beijing, with officials saying on Friday (June 19) it identified a European strain based on preliminary studies.

China, which had been under pressure to publish such data, said it had also submitted the data to the World Health Organisation and the Global Influenza Data Initiative (GISAID).

The U.S. administration has blamed the Chinese government for not handling the initial outbreak in central China properly and moving too slowly to contain the epidemic, leading to mounting cases and deaths in the United States. China has rejected such accusation.

According to details published on China's National Microbiology Data Centre website, the genome data was based on three samples - two human and one environmental - collected on June 11, the day Beijing reported its first new local Covid-19 infection in months.

In the eight days since, the city has reported a total of 183 cases, linked to the sprawling wholesale food centre of Xinfadi in the city's southwest.

"According to preliminary genomic and epidemiological study results, the virus is from Europe, but it is different from the virus currently spreading in Europe," Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) official Zhang Yong said. "It's older than the virus currently spreading in Europe."

Mr Zhang also suggested a few possibilities as to how the virus arrived in China.

"It could have been hidden in imported frozen food products, or it was lurking in some dark and humid environment such as Xinfadi, with the environment not having been disinfected or sterilised," Mr Zhang wrote in an article posted on the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection's website on Friday (June 19).

Dr Wu Zunyou, the CDC's chief epidemiology expert, had told state media earlier this week the Beijing strain was similar to Europe's but not necessarily directly transmitted from there.

The first major cluster of new coronavirus infections was traced to the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan in December. It has since spread globally, infecting almost 8.5 million people and killing around 450,000.

In a separate interview with state television aired on Friday, Dr Wu alluded to "people or goods" outside Beijing as the source of the outbreak at Xinfadi.

“It’s unclear who, or what kind of goods, had brought the virus into Beijing,” he said. 

Food wholesalers and retail stores in Beijing have stepped up testing on products including meat and seafood.

The closure of Xinfadi - Beijing’s biggest wholesale food market - set off a bout of stockpiling even though authorities have promised adequate supplies.