Authorities in the Chinese capital have locked down a wholesale produce market amid a fresh wave of coronavirus cases.
Beijing health authorities confirmed new cases of COVID-19 in the capital after testing a total of 76,499 people, state news agency Xinhua reported. The World Health Organization (WHO) put the number of new, confirmed cases in the city at more than 100.
Beijing municipal health commission spokesman Gao Xiaojun said the authorities are pushing ahead with a city-wide testing program, with 193 test sites already in place.
"Most of the newly-reported indigenous cases in Beijing were related to the now-closed Xinfadi market," Xinhua reported.
Thousands of people living near the wholesale market have been tested, while traders and customers have also been traced and tested, it said.
Of the 59 new confirmed cases, six were asymptomatic and 36 were transmitted within Beijing, bringing the cumulative total of domestically transmitted cases to 499.
Beijing-based journalist Chen Hongtao said Xinfadi is the city's biggest wholesale farm produce market.
"It serves the whole of Beijing, with at least 80 percent of the cereals, oils and foodstuffs and agricultural produce coming from there," Chen said. "Some hotels, guesthouses and work canteens buy their supplies direct from there."
"A lot of Beijing residents like to get up really early and go there to buy their produce on public transport," he said.
"It's also a public transportation hub, so it's hard to imagine just how many people pass through there in the space of 14 days: hundreds of thousands, so that means they will need to test more than a million people."
Market area under lockdown
A Beijing resident who gave only her surname Song said the entire area around Xinfadi has now been placed under lockdown.
"Everywhere close to Xinfadi has been closed off; it's surrounded by troops," Song said.
"Everyone who worked there has been ordered to self-isolate and to report for testing," she said. "Employers are offering to reimburse people 200 yuan [towards the cost of testing]."
"The whole of Mentougou district used to buy their produce at Xinfadi, so how many people was that? One person from Xinfadi went to Songyuli Market, and they shut down Songyuli Market, and everyone there went to get tested the day before yesterday," she said.
An official who answered the phone at the Beijing health commission on Monday said the testing program wasn't mandatory, but that people would be contacted via a tracing app.
"If you work [at Xinfadi], or if big data finds that you are a close contact person, you will be contacted and told that you must go for a nucleic acid test," the official said.
Banned from discussion
Rui Hong, a former senior official with the Chinese Red Cross, said the authorities have muzzled medical staff since the scandal surrounding the treatment of whistleblowing doctors during the outbreak in Wuhan at the beginning of the year.
"All of my friends and colleagues who are doctors are banned from talking about [coronavirus cases] or giving interviews," Rui said.
She said the authorities are keen to emphasize cases that have been imported from Europe, and play down the extent of local transmission.
"Every time, they look for an excuse, for example that it was found in fish imported from Europe," she said.
The WHO on Monday warned countries to stay on alert for a possible resurgence of COVID-19 infections, and said the Beijing outbreak was cause for concern.
"Even in countries that have demonstrated the ability to suppress transmission, countries must stay alert to the possibility of resurgence," WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual news conference.
"Last week, China reported a new cluster of cases in Beijing, after more than 50 days without a case in that city. More than 100 cases have now been confirmed.
"The origin and extent of the outbreak are being investigated."
Response closely tracked
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's COVID-19 technical lead, said she hadn't received notification of any deaths so far from the Beijing outbreak.
WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan said the health body is tracking the response of the Chinese authorities "very closely."
"A cluster like this is a concern and it needs to be investigated and controlled, and that is exactly what the Chinese authorities are doing," he said.
The novel coronavirus has killed at least 433,000 people and infected more than 7.9 million since it first emerged in China last December, Agence France-Presse cited figures from official sources as saying.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Siu-san and Sing Man for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
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