The resurgence of Covid-19 in China's capital over the past week has been linked to the city's massive Xinfadi food centre, also raising fears over the hygiene of the imported fish.
Low standards of hygiene in China's wholesale food markets and vulnerabilities in its food supply chain need to be urgently addressed after a new coronavirus outbreak in Beijing, a leading body of the ruling Communist Party said.
The resurgence of Covid-19 in the country's capital over the past week, infecting more than 100 people and raising fears of wider contagion, has been linked to the city's massive Xinfadi food centre.
The Communist Party's top disciplinary body said the outbreak underlined the urgent need to improve sanitation standards and minimise health risks at markets.
"The epidemic is a mirror that not only reflects the dirty and messy aspects of wholesale markets but also their low-level management conditions," the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) said in a report published on its website on Wednesday.
Dilapidated food markets ideal habitat for virus
China's sprawling food markets have emerged as an ideal breeding ground for the coronavirus, which has now infected more than 8 million people worldwide.
The first major cluster of infections was traced to the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, where bats and other wild animals were believed to be on sale.
The CCDI report noted that most of the markets were built 20 to 30 years ago, when drainage and wastewater treatment was relatively undeveloped.
An Yufa, a professor at China Agricultural University, was cited in the report as saying the markets must follow international practice and implement origin tracing systems as well as documentation on storage, transport and sale.
Officials in Wuhan province took 3,000 samples from tools, chopping boards and drains in 114 farmers' markets and 107 supermarkets this week to check for potential new sources of infection.
All came up negative, they said.
China has promised to ban the trade and consumption and wildlife in a bid to minimise disease transmission, though the use of wild animal products in traditional medicine will still be permitted.
Origin of cluster
The source of the new outbreak remains a mystery.
Traces of the virus were found on a salmon chopping board at Xinfadi, raising fears over the hygiene of the imported fish.
Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist with the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, told state broadcaster CCTV on Monday that the pathogen "resembles the virus strains in Europe the most, which, however, doesn't mean that it came from Europe".
But Wu said researchers still had not determined whether the virus was from the imported seafood itself, or transmitted from an infected asymptomatic or mild-symptom person who went to the market.
"We came up several possibilities, and the most likely one is that the carrier of the novel coronavirus comes from outside China or other parts of China and brought it here," said Wu.
How are people reacting?
The latest outbreak is already changing the city after two months of no new local cases. Bars in the trendy Sanlitun district have been ordered to close, while consumers are wary of eating seafood at local restaurants.
The closure of schools may last through to autumn, an official suggested on Monday.
Beijing education commission spokesman Li Yi, meanwhile, urged schools to prepare online and offline classes for the autumn term.
The city's anti-epidemic measures had relaxed in recent weeks after the annual meeting of China's parliament in May saw thousands of delegates flock to the capital.
But an expert said the latest outbreak would not worry Beijing residents too much, as city authorities have reacted quickly.
"The government raises the risk level of the epidemic on the basis of streets and districts, instead of the (entire) city. This could help ease people's panic to some extent," said Lu Jiehua, a sociology professor at Peking University.
"The daily habit of wearing masks, frequent hand-washing and fewer public gatherings have already become routine behaviours for everyone, which is a big change. People will still be on high alert, but it's not caused by extreme panic."