By Tara Subramaniam
The Chinese coastal city of Xiamen is testing freshly caught fish, crabs and even shrimp for Covid-19 as it goes all out to contain a spiraling outbreak — a policy drawing ridicule online and criticism from experts who say it’s a “waste of resources.”
This week, videos of hazmat-suited health workers sticking cotton swabs into the mouths of fish and crabs went viral on Chinese social media, sparking complaints that the country’s zero-Covid policy had gone too far.
Since the pandemic, China has relied on mass testing, extensive quarantines and snap lockdowns to stamp out any resurgence of the coronavirus. But the highly infectious Omicron variant has posed a challenge to China’s most stringent anti-Covid measures.
In Xiamen’s Jimei district, authorities issued a notice last month ordering both “fishermen and their catch” to be tested for Covid.
It said since June, “illegal trading and illegal contact” between fishermen in the Fujian province and overseas vessels had spread Covid to China, “causing great social harm.”
Xiamen reported 10 Covid cases Friday, bringing the total number in the latest outbreak to 65. The port city rolled out three rounds of mass testing for its 5 million residents, starting from Wednesday.
Taihainet.com, a state-run news website in Fujian, reported that the testing requirement for both fishermen and their catch was implemented “to strengthen the maritime epidemic defense line and strictly prevent the import of the epidemic from the sea.”
Jin Dongyan, a professor at Hong Kong University’s School of Biomedical Sciences, told CNN the policy was a “waste of resources.”
“They should focus on the people rather than the fish,” he said.
According to Jin, testing the catch is “completely useless” because the chances of the fish testing positive and spreading the virus to humans was “very low.”
“It is 100 or 1,000 times more possible that these fishermen got infected by other fishermen. There’s no evidence that the fish can transmit the virus,” he said.
Chinese officials have previously blamed the country’s Covid-19 outbreaks on a variety of imports, including frozen seafood, suggesting that people could have become sick after handling contaminated packaging.
However, since 2020 the World Health Organization has maintained that there is no evidence people can catch Covid from food or food packaging. And in January 2022, the Centre for Animal Health and Welfare at the City University of Hong Kong said the risk of getting Covid from animals was “negligible.”
Previously, reports have emerged of seafood, livestock, fruit and even crops being tested for Covid in China. Authorities have also implemented rigorous measures testing the packaging of food imports for traces of the virus, even suspending imports from companies that test positive and causing delays and clogged ports.
Xiamen’s testing policy comes as China takes extensive steps to maintain its zero-Covid stance, including locking down an Ikea branch in Shanghai this week after a close contact of a Covid-19 case was traced to the location, and stranding more than 80,000 tourists on the resort island of Hainan last week to stem an outbreak.
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CNN’s Beijing bureau contributed to this report.