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A Cluster Of Coronavirus Cases In Beijing Is Traced Back To A Produce Market


More than 250 new cases of the coronavirus in the last two weeks have been linked to a sprawling produce market in Beijing. As NPR's Emily Feng reports, the city is sparing no measure to contain the outbreak.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Ahh (ph). Ahh. Ahh. Ahh.


EMILY FENG, BYLINE: A chorus of ahhs (ph) rings through this Beijing alleyway, the telltale sound of throats being swabbed for mass COVID testing.


FENG: All across the city, temporary testing sites like this one have been set up in the last week and a half to provide free testing for neighborhoods deemed medium or high-risk. The problem is, so many people want to get tested that in the first few days, testing sites kept running out of throat swabs and testing kits.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: To cut down on materials and on testing time, Beijing is using a technique called sample pooling. Health workers swab 10 residents and then test a single collective sample. If it tests positive, the 10 residents are called back for individual testing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: Because the Beijing cluster of cases began at a food market, many who work in the food service industry cannot begin work and get paid without first getting a COVID test. At another testing site in southern Beijing, this man complains he's been waiting a week for his results.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: A weary medical officer rubs his eyes and looks up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: The medical officer explains results now come back in four days, not one, because they're swamped. What is still a mystery is how exactly the virus got to the market. At first, researchers from China's Center for Disease Control said they found traces of the virus on a cutting board used for imported salmon. Imports of Norwegian salmon dropped, and restaurants threw out all their sushi. Genetic sequencing of some of the samples suggested the virus resembled strains in Europe. But now, China's CDC says those strains pre-date the kind spreading in Europe, suggesting that started in China, spread to Europe and then was reimported into the Beijing food market. Here's Gao Fu, the CDC director at a press conference last week.


GAO FU: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: He explains this Beijing cluster may have begun as early as the end of April given the number of mild and asymptomatic cases authorities have discovered. So for now, the city is moving cautiously. Beijing is undertaking extensive contact tracing of every new case. Residential complexes near the produce market are still under complete lockdown. Everyone else cannot leave the city or faces two-week quarantines in other cities. Restaurants and hotels in the suburban fringes of the city have been told, again, to shut down completely. The goal is to stop Beijing from becoming the next Wuhan at all costs.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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