Chinese media claiming origins of COVID-19 pandemic stem from Maine lobster company

Chinese media is suggesting COVID-19 first arrived in a market like this one from shipments of lobster from the U.S. state of Maine.

Reports appearing across China’s tightly controlled media are suggesting COVID-19 first arrived in the country in 2019 via a shipment of lobster from the U.S. state of Maine.

“In November 2019, a shipment of frozen Maine [lobster] arrived in Wuhan and shortly afterwards several people working in the market fell very ill with a strange pneumonia,” noted an article published this week in the New Observer, a state-owned periodical.

The article suggests the shipment from Maine was a “Pandora’s box” that spread the virus around China. It also states the “American side has not owned up to the origins of the virus.”

The Sina news portal – one of the most-read on China’s state-controlled internet – reported on the issue in more detail, suggesting a shipment from Maine consisting of 55 boxes of chilled Boston lobster weighing 823.4 kilograms arrived in Shanghai Pudong Airport on 11 November, 2019, aboard a China Eastern Airlines flight was then forwarded to 26 customers across the country. One of the customers was an unnamed vendor at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, where the virus was first reported in late 2019, after an initial cover-up by local government.

The Sina article includes several maps of the Huanan market which link the Wuhan vendor with concentrations of COVID-19 infections within the market. The article also includes what it says are quotes from the report of the World Health Organization study trip to China, one of which states that "research shows that the new coronavirus can survive for a long time in conditions of frozen food, packaging, and cold-chain products.”

Sina linked the source of COVID-19 to a particular Maine county and company: the Seashell Company (the name appears in the article as 美国海贝公司 – the Mandarin article uses the term “Hai Bei,” which means sea shell). The article lists the company as being based in York County, which is in southern Maine, but SeafoodSource has been unable to confirm any such company exists.

However, a map in the article identifies the company’s headquarters, which are identical to those of York, Maine-based lobster exporter Maine Coast Shellfish, which is now owned by Premium Brands. The Sina article also lists the founding date of the company as 2011, which matches with Maine Coast’s date of founding.

“The lobsters that entered China were caught by the company from 20 October to 5 November, 2019, from the Atlantic Ocean's FAO21 waters,” the Sina article said.

The article claims that the Maine Center for Disease Control had flagged the emergence of a series of what Sina termed “e-cigarette pneumonia” cases in July 2019 and that these cases were centered at the York Hospital, nearby the company’s headquarters. The cases were kept secret, the article claims, though it illogically also states that the outbreak was reported by local media.

“From July to the end of October 2019, the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local media, and local residents' personal social media accounts repeatedly reported ‘e-cigarette pneumonia,’ which is a suspected new coronary pneumonia case that has been kept secret in the United States,” the article states.

Despite the claim of a cover-up, in January 2020, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention published a statement on its website stating the agency “is working with clinical and public health partners in Maine, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (U.S. CDC), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and others to investigate an outbreak of lung injury associated with use of e-cigarette, or vaping, products.”

A Maine CDC update in February 2020 added that “national and state data from patient reports and product sample testing show tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)-containing e-cigarette, or vaping, products, particularly from informal sources like friends, family, or in-person or online dealers, are linked to most EVALI [ e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury] cases and play a major role in the outbreak.”

Robert Long of the Maine CDC told SeafoodSource that "there is no scientific evidence to support these claims."

Maine Coast President Tom Adams said he has not been contacted by any Chinese media and has “no idea at all” why his company is being singled out.

“Public health organizations from around the world have stated with certainty that imported food is not the cause of COVID-19. Maine Coast has no information supporting this claim,” Adams told SeafoodSource on 1 October.

Adams expressed incredulity at the claims being made about his company’s alleged role in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Even … a single shipment would have so many touchpoints and people along the way – drivers, handlers, customs officials in both countries, seafood handlers in the U.S. and China – if this were to be true, the potential for contamination would be high for all of them, so not having any cases along the way would be extremely surprising and unusual,” Adams said.

Adams said Maine Coast has “not heard any concern from our Chinese customers and it has not affected our current business."

“It is my understanding that Chinese press has been since the beginning of COVID been trying to find other places, including foods from around the world, including Norwegian salmon, Australian seafood products, to blame the spread of COVID on with no success. I think we’ve all read those articles,” he said.

The World Health Organization, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, and all major national food safety agencies report there is no connection between seafood, seafood packaging, and COVID-19, according to the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group representing the U.S. seafood industry.

“Simply stated, people cannot get COVID-19 from eating seafood. NFI’s Seafood Safety & COVID-19 website demonstrates over and over that the coronavirus is not related to seafood. Seafood is a safe and wholesome food with nutritional benefits that contribute to a strong immune system,” NFI said in a statement.

Even if unsupported by evidence, the linkage in China of COVID-19 with imported seafood cold chains has damaged the perception of imported seafood throughout the country,  though Chinese distributors have been keen to focus the attention on countries where COVID-19 controls have been lax.

In a recent interview with SeafoodSource, the head of the Chinese Aquatic Products Processing and Marketing Association (CAPPMA) Cui He said China was forced to make enhancements to its COVID-19 controls because similar controls were not being instituted in some seafood-exporting countries. Indian and Ecuadorian companies – both major suppliers of shrimp to China – have faced temporary bans from the Chinese market after Chinese customs announced discovery of COVID-19 traces found on their shrimp packaging.

COVID-19 checks on inbound seafood shipments has crimped supply and put pressure on prices in Chinese markets. Traffic jams at Chinese ports exacerbated by the COVID-19 testing regime has also pushed up freight prices, depleting the margins of Chinese processors relying on export markets.    

Photo courtesy of L Nunes/Shutterstock


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