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China calls for caution in opening overseas post after Omicron case

A courier driver sorts packages while sitting in the trunk of his electric tricycle following an outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Beijing, China, on August 21, 2020. REUTERS / Thomas Peter

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SHANGHAI, Jan. 18 (Reuters) - China urges people to wear masks and gloves when opening mail, especially from abroad, after authorities suggested that the first case of the Omicron coronavirus virus variant found in Beijing could have arrived via a package from Canada.

Authorities promised to intensify the disinfection of overseas mail and insist that the postal staff handling it are fully vaccinated.

The precautions come less than three weeks before the capital opens the Winter Olympics, and as more Chinese cities work to suppress new outbreaks of coronavirus infections.

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"Minimize purchases of overseas goods or receipt of mail from abroad," state television company CCTV said late Monday in a post on social media.

"Be sure to protect yourself during face-to-face handovers and wear masks and gloves; try to open the package outdoors."

Health officials said the person found infected with the Omicron variant had opened a package from Canada that had been shipped through the United States and Hong Kong, and transmission via the package "could not be ruled out." Read more

The case highlighted the importance of "personal defense," CCTV said.

Similar suggestions on how to handle packages, not just those from abroad, were made by the National Health Commission on its official WeChat account and reissued by the authorities in the cities of Shanghai and Nanjing.

China has been an outlier in claiming that COVID-19 can be transmitted via cold-chain imports such as frozen meat and fish, although the World Health Organization has downplayed the risk. Beijing has also pushed for a narrative via state media that the virus existed abroad before it was discovered in late 2019 in the central city of Wuhan. Read more

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last year that the relative risk of coronavirus infections from contact with contaminated surfaces or objects is considered low.

Without all the evidence, it was difficult to draw conclusions with certainty, but some scientists questioned Beijing's theory on Tuesday.

David Heymann, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said it was not clear how it would be possible for the virus to survive with the mail as it spreads via droplets surrounded by moisture and stops being contagious . when it dries out.

When asked by CNBC about the idea that Omicron had been introduced to China by mail, Pfizer Inc. said board member and former U.S. Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottlieb that he did not think it sounded plausible.

"It sounds like a lot of theory," he said.

In recent weeks, China has been fighting for a resurgence of cases in several cities, some of them of the highly transferable Omicron variant. On Tuesday, it reported 127 new local cases with confirmed symptoms. Read more

The State Post Bureau on Monday issued a statement that international mail must be disinfected after reaching China, and employees who process and deliver international mail must have received COVID-19 vaccinations and a booster.

China Post has also reminded recipients of overseas mail to disinfect the content "in a timely manner" with stickers pasted on packages.

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Reporting by Josh Horwitz; Further reporting by Dominique Patton in Beijing and Shanghai Newsroom, Josephine Mason in London and Caroline Humer in New York; Edited by Brenda Goh, Robert Birsel, Raissa Kasolowsky and Mark Heinrich

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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