A Canadian package allegedly contaminated with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is responsible for the lone case of Omicron infection detected in Beijing, according to the city’s center for disease control.
Beijing on Saturday placed an office building in lockdown after an employee tested positive for Omicron, the city’s first recorded case of the variant, according to CNN.
Local officials have been on high alert for weeks as the Chinese capital prepares to welcome athletes for the Winter Olympics, including from countries where omicron is rampant.
The single Omicron case involves someone who has not left the city in the past 14 days and has not made contact with another confirmed case.
A state-run news outlet first reported that officials instead suspect that the patient may have been in contact with “an object from overseas” — specifically a letter from Toronto sent on Jan. 7, according to the National Post.
“We do not rule out the possibility that the person was infected through contacting an object from overseas,” said Pang Xinghuo, deputy director of the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control, according to the South China Morning Post.
Testing reportedly detected Omicron on the letter, which traveled through the U.S. and Hong Kong before arriving in Beijing on Jan. 11.
All employees who handled the mail are now in quarantine. However, traces of the variant were also reportedly found on five more pieces of mail, which were all sent from the same place but to different locations in China.
So far, all 69 close contacts of the Beijing patient have tested negative. Some 16,000 swab test samples from other potential contacts, as well as over 800 samples collected from the environment, also tested negative.
While China has claimed that COVID-19 can be transmitted through contaminated objects, experts elsewhere in the world say it is highly unlikely.
Canada initially responded to China’s claim by calling it an “extraordinary view.”
“I think this is something not only new, but intriguing and certainly not in accordance with what we have done both internationally and domestically,” Canadian Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told reporters, as per CTV News.
Shortly after, The Public Health Agency of Canada said in a statement that while the mail could be contaminated, “the risk of COVID-19 infection when handling paper mail or cardboard packages, including international mail, is extremely low,” according to the CBC.
“In general, coronaviruses including variants do not spread from products or packaging shipped over a period of days or weeks,” the Canadian health agency said.
Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a China expert at the University of Ottawa, dismissed the Chinese claim as “ludicrous.”
“Unlike the early days, scientists have clarified that it does not stay on surfaces. To suggest that it would be on mail that came over days from Canada is ludicrous,” McCuaig-Johnston said, according to The Canadian Press.
Still, Pang urged the Chinese public to avoid buying goods from abroad.
“Omicron virus transmits fast, please pay attention, avoid buying stuff from overseas, make sure you wear gloves, don’t bring the package indoors,” Pang said, according to The Guardian. “If you have to, clean the package outside with alcohol, and wash your hands.”