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'Beijing will not be a second Wuhan': Fears of new outbreak after string of coronavirus cases

The new outbreak has been traced to a major wholesale food market in Beijing's southwestern Fengtai district.
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Beijing has reported a rising number of new COVID-19 cases for the second day running, raising fears about the re-emergence of the coronavirus in the Chinese capital.

Beijing health officials on Monday confirmed 36 new COVID-19 cases, the same increase as a day earlier, which was the city’s highest daily infection count in nearly two months. There had been no new domestic cases in the city for 56 consecutive days, but since June 11 the capital has reported 79 new cases.

The new outbreak has been linked to a major wholesale food market in Beijing's southwestern Fengtai district.

The spike has put the district in "wartime emergency mode,” shutting down the market and closing off 11 residential compounds in its vicinity as authorities try to identify people who have recently visited the market and their close contacts.

Image: People who visited or live near Xinfadi Market queue for a swab test at Guangan Sport Center in Beijing
People who visited or live near Xinfadi Market queue for a swab test at Guangan Sport Center in Beijing on Sunday. Noel Celis / AFP - Getty Images

China’s top epidemiologist, Wu Zunyou, told the Chinese state media outlet China News on Sunday that the authorities have yet to pinpoint the source of the infection in the Xinfadi market, adding that he believes the outbreak is still isolated and has not spread to the whole of Beijing, home to some 20 million people.

“Beijing will not turn into a second Wuhan, spreading the virus to many cities all across the country and even needing a lockdown,” Zeng Guang, the former chief epidemiologist at Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and currently a senior expert with the National Health Commission, said at the press conference on Sunday.

The coronavirus pandemic is believed to have originated at a seafood market in Wuhan, causing the city to go into a strict lockdown for 11 weeks starting in late January to slow the spread of the virus. However, the virus spread abroad, infecting nearly 8 million people worldwide and killing more than 430,000.

Restrictions in Beijing have only recently been eased and things began going back to normal, with some children going back to school and attractions reopening. But that has come to an abrupt end amid fears of a second wave of infections in the Chinese capital.

“The risk of the epidemic spreading is very high, so we should take resolute and decisive measures,” Xu Hejiang, spokesman at the Beijing city government, said Monday.

Authorities are testing tens of thousands of people at testing sites set up at sport stadiums, hospitals and drive-through locations across the capital. Residents are also having their body temperatures checked.

Out of the 36 new cases recorded Sunday, 34 were either directly or indirectly linked to the Xinfadi market, including 19 people who worked there, Beijing's health commission said Monday.

City authorities said over 8,000 vendors, purchasing and managing staff at the market have been tested and transferred to designated areas for medical observation.

To date, the city has traced nearly 200,000 people who have visited the market since May 30.

Image: A worker arranges vegetable at the closed Xinfadi Market in Beijing
A worker arranges vegetables at the closed Xinfadi Market in Beijing on Sunday. Noel Celis / AFP - Getty Images

Meanwhile, Baoding, a major city near Beijing in Hebei province, launched “wartime” measures Monday to prevent an outbreak in the city, after three new cases, all related to Beijing’s Xinfadi market, were confirmed there.

The city’s government said temperature checks will be conducted in shopping malls, residential communities, office buildings and on public transit. Stores and supermarkets must strictly control people’s movement, and medical institutions have been told to strengthen safety procedures around treating patients with fever.

The spike in Beijing, along with three cases in Baoding and 10 new cases imported from abroad have increased the total number of cases in China to 83,181 as of Sunday — far fewer than in Europe and the United States, where millions of people have been sickened by the virus.

The World Health Organization said Saturday it’s closely monitoring the outbreak in Beijing.

"All cases are in isolation and under care as needed, and contact tracing is underway," the WHO said in a statement. “Genetic sequencing of samples is also underway and rapid sharing of these results is important to understand the origin of the cluster and links between cases."