A coronavirus outbreak in Shanghai has been traced to two cargo handlers who cleaned a container that had just arrived from North America, Chinese health officials have said.
Hundreds of flights were cancelled at Shanghai’s Pudong International airport, one of the world’s busiest transport hubs, amid chaotic scenes caused by a sudden decision to test airport staff on Sunday.
Overnight from Sunday into Monday, workers in full protective gear ushered staff into a multistorey car park to have the virus test. Videos posted online by Shanghai health authorities showed scores of people filing into the facility.
The virus outbreak is largely under control in China, but authorities have warned of the possibility for new outbreaks as the weather gets colder, and have reacted to a small number of local cases by testing millions of people and introducing lockdowns and school closures in Tianjin, Shanghai and Manzhouli.
Shanghai has reported at least seven local cases of Covid-19, after five months of no community transmission. The first cases, recorded on 9 and 10 November, were airport cargo handlers. Sun Xiaodong, a Shanghai disease control centre official, said the two employees had entered and cleaned the container on 30 October, suggesting a timeline matching that of the usual presentation of symptoms after infection.
Neither was wearing a mask inside the container, which was sealed off and damp inside. Sun added that the strain of the virus found in both workers was similar to that in North America.
“Research at home and abroad has shown coronavirus could live in enclosed, damp environments,” Sun told a news conference.
Airport officials said infections had only been found in the cargo handling area, not the passenger terminals.
Zhou Junlong, vice-president of the Shanghai Airport Authority, also said more than 17,700 employees of the cargo handling area had been tested, and that all of the 11,544 results returned so far had been negative. Videos purported to be from inside the airport show authorities wearing hazmat suits herding thousands of people to get tested. However, some reports on Chinese social media said the mass test was abandoned.
Wild scenes at Shanghai Pudong airport – multiple vids going around of what appears to be a sudden decision by authorities to test all staff for #COVID19 after 2 positive cases detected. Reports say authorities ultimately relented as things were getting out of hand. pic.twitter.com/Xenus4dHPR
Zhou said authorities would run regular nucleic acid tests for high-risk cargo workers and offer them emergency use of vaccines on a voluntary basis.
China recorded 11 new infections on Monday, including two local cases in Shanghai, the National Health Commission said. Mainland China’s tally stands at 86,442 cases, with the death toll unchanged at 4,634.
Authorities say they have not yet found a link between the first two cases in Shanghai and the most recent ones.
Additional reporting by Lillian Yang and Reuters